May 19, 2022

Op-Ed: Eliminating Mask Requirement in Lyme-Old Lyme Schools is Premature, Shortsighted

Compared to the peak of the Omicron surge three weeks ago, case numbers are decreasing — both locally and nationally.

Compared to where we were before Omicron — from summer through Thanksgiving — case numbers are still high.

With that said, we are seeing fewer people getting COVID, and that positive trend is likely to continue. The period of the pandemic where masks are required is definitely drawing to a close.

Recently, the school board and the superintendent announced that they are lifting the mask requirement on February 28th. There are a range of problems with their communication, including the fact that they will stop reporting positive cases in schools in a timely way this spring, but this piece focuses on the specific issue of the mask requirement.

The decision to eliminate the mask requirement — made largely without feedback from the larger school community — is premature and shortsighted. Unfortunately, both their choice and the process of making that choice are consistent with the district’s refusal to commit to layered mitigation strategies throughout the pandemic, and especially during the recent Omicron surge.

Since January 2 and February 18, 2022, the district has reported 138 people who have tested positive for COVID. Because the district chooses not to do systemic testing in schools, the real case count is probably higher. But the reality is we don’t know what’s happening in the schools relative to COVID. The lack of testing, the continued positive cases, and the generally vague communication from the district doesn’t create trust.

Students and staff are on winter break from February 18th through the 28th. Lifting the mask requirements on February 28th means that students will be bringing back any exposure that they might have had over their holiday and dropping it into the school environment. This is incredibly unfair to people who take reasonable precautions, because in a pandemic individual choice impacts community realities.

Because the superintendent and school board are choosing to lift the mask requirement on the 28th, they are making schools the place where risk and benefit both get inequitably redistributed. People who haven’t taken precautions against COVID, and people who aren’t wearing masks, will expose people who have taken precautions to greater risk. Conversely, those who have taken precautions and weak masks are actively creating a situation where everyone has lower risk of exposure — including those who take no precautions.

This is where the lie of “individual responsibility” against the backdrop of a global pandemic becomes obvious: we have a collective obligation to each other, and people can use their individual choice in a way that undermines the long term safety of the larger community.

Lifting the mask requirement now disproportionately and unfairly impacts people who need to take additional precautions because they are immunocompromised, live with someone who is immunocompromised, or is at a greater risk for negative outcomes from COVID.

The way forward is obvious: keep the mask requirement in place a few weeks longer, into mid-March. This approach gives cases an additional few weeks to subside, would allow the weather to become warmer so people can make more use of outdoor spaces, and would avoid the impact of people bringing their exposure back to the schools after the break.

Additionally, the district should put a mask requirement in place for the week following Spring Break. Cases have generally surged after breaks, and we have no reason to assume differently.

And, of course, if case numbers don’t subside in schools, or if we have another spike in cases when the next variant arrives, we need to look at layered mitigation strategies, including improved air filtration and requiring mask use.

Everyone wants to return to some version of “normal” – whatever that is. But by prematurely removing masking requirements, the district ensures that any return to “normal” will remain more elusive than it needs to be.

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of William Fitzgerald of Old Lyme. 

Op-Ed: Faculty, Staff at Lyme-Old Lyme Schools Deserve Cash Bonuses

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was submitted by William Fitzgerald of Old Lyme. 

In Old Lyme, we claim to value education. Now is the time for us to step up and show we mean it. The Board of Education recently put out a request to crowdsource gifts for teachers. While this gesture is well-intentioned, it’s not enough. Our school staff – every adult who worked in the building, from the custodial crew to maintenance to the kitchen staff to guidance counselors to admin assistants to tech staff to teachers and admins – stepped up under the most challenging conditions this country has seen in a generation. Their effort and care deserves cash bonuses.

Currently, the district site lists 306 people. Let’s assume, for the sake of overestimating, that the full number of people supporting our kids in the district is 350. Estimating high, paying each staff member a bonus of $1,000 would cost $350,000. A bonus of $2,000 per person is $700,000; and a bonus of $3,000 per person is just over a million dollars.

We have the money to do this. The current budget contains a little over 1.7 million dollars in unspent funds “returned” to Lyme and Old Lyme. Returning “unspent” money is an annual ritual; between 2017 and the current budget the district has refunded amounts ranging between $647,000 and $1.7 million (see footnote, below). This money is cash that has already been taxed from the townspeople, and allocated via budgets. The towns or the district could pay every staff member a $3,000 bonus and still leave $700,000 of that 1.7 million untouched.

If the school board wants to solicit matching donations from community members, the contributions could potentially be routed through the Lyme Old Lyme Education Foundation, where these community contributions could be a tax writeoff. This assumes that the LOLEF would be willing to serve in this role, but it seems a natural extension of their past work and aligned with their general mission.

Given what things have been like since March 2020, I can’t imagine that our school board and superintendent would want to do anything except show our school staff that they are appreciated via this one time cash bonus. Frequent objections to doing something different include that it’s too hard, or that there isn’t enough time, or that the politics of the budget process are too complicated.

However, our teachers, our admin staff, our custodians, our kitchen staff, our tech staff did not have the luxury of these excuses. Their work was unreasonably hard, and they did it. They did not have adequate time to plan for the continual shifts and disruptions caused by Covid – and they showed up and excelled. Our staff had to navigate the impacts of the political quagmire that marked our national response to Covid – and they showed up and made it happen, under circumstances that were and continue to be unreasonably difficult and complex. 

The commitment, professionalism, and follow through of our staff should be matched by this board, and the town selectmen.

In January, in the middle of the current pandemic, this school board committed nearly 2.5 million dollars for an artificial turf field. If we can afford millions for fake grass, we should be able to afford thousands for actual people.

Pay school staff a one time bonus for their work during the pandemic. We have the money, and they earned it.

Author’s footnotes:

School budgets listed on the Region 18 district website go back to the 2019-2020 budget, which allows us to see “returned” funds starting on 6/30/2017.

The budget overview pages are here:

Carry over funds from 2017 and 2018:

  • 6/30/2017 – $1,101,399
  • 06/30/2018 – $804,212

Carry over funds from 2019:

  • 06/30/2019  – $647,155

Carry over funds from 2020:

  • 06/30/20 – $1,725,886

The district has not yet released a projection of unspent funds for the current fiscal year ending 6/30/2021, but if past patterns hold there is potentially an additional $650,000 to $1.1 million dollars in play.