Wilton superintendent calls first mask-optional day a ‘milestone’

The front doors of Wilton High School welcomed students on Monday who had the choice to enter with or without masks after the state handed the decision off to local school districts in February.

The front doors of Wilton High School welcomed students on Monday who had the choice to enter with or without masks after the state handed the decision off to local school districts in February.

Alex von Kleydorff / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Returning from winter break, many students moseyed into their classes Monday without a face covering for the first time since masking regulations were set in place by the state to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, the decision to enforce mandatory mask mandates was handed back to individual school districts with the ability for appropriately deemed guidance to go into effect on Feb. 28.

Days later, Wilton Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith released a letter to parents with preliminary guidance to allow for optional masking from kindergarten through high school. The rule was officially put into action Monday with support from the town’s medical adviser after reviewing the percentage of eligible staff vaccinated, which sits at 97 percent, and the student population’s vaccination status.

“Yesterday was a great day and marked a real milestone since the onset of the pandemic,” Smith said Tuesday. “The day was very smooth in all of our school buildings.”

The Board of Education said one of its primary goals was to “return to as normal an environment as possible while maintaining the health and safety of students and staff.” With Connecticut Department of Public Health and Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention guidance updated, along with the town’s low transmission rate, Monday “marked the beginning of another positive change toward making our school environments as normal as possible,” Smith said.

As of Tuesday, the district has reported just eight positive cases across its entire student and staff population. That number ties that of the last school week before winter break in February and is the lowest weekly total since the week leading up to Thanksgiving.

“I do consider this a success,” Smith said. “As a community, we have worked diligently to limit the spread of COVID-19. We have very high vaccination rates and have retained a suite of other mitigation strategies.”

He noted that transmission rates have been on the decline during February and the district is seeing numbers that mirror the low transmission totals from the fall, before the winter spike. Hopeful to see numbers continue to decline in coming weeks, Smith said that the district may be able to begin “walking back” some of its other mitigation strategies as well.

However, not everyone has decided to forego the face coverings just yet.

As expected, we had some folks continuing to wear masks and others who elected not to,” Smith said. “It is very important to make those who are choosing to wear masks feel comfortable in our buildings. Our staff communicates regularly about the importance of acceptance and the need to respect others' choices.”

Calling this a “very positive step forward,” Smith added that he suspects more and more will continue to “shed masks in school” as transmission lowers, but credited the strong character of the district’s students to maintain affable relationships with one another and demonstrate respect for their peers. Along with the teachers’ efforts, Smith said, the district is a “caring environment” for those who still choose to wear masks in the school building.

He reiterated a thankfulness to the student body for its resiliency and adaptability throughout the pandemic. The next step, he said, is focusing on the students’ social and emotional development as transmission continues to lower. Providing school environments that are “safe and routines that are reliable and predictable” is a major focus of Smith and the district staff to support students' social and emotional well-being.

“We have all encountered pandemic fatigue,” Smith said. “On that note, I think many will appreciate the opportunity to see others' faces.”