MONROE, CT — Justin Orlando, a Republican candidate for the Board of Education who opposes mask mandates, literally wore his views on his chest during an interview at Starbucks Friday morning. His T-shirt said, “Breaking News: Fresh Air is Still Fresh Air.”
He disagrees with Gov. Ned Lamont having sole authority on how the state handles the pandemic, including the executive order requiring masking in schools.
“I am not anti-mask. I am pro choice,” Orlando said. “This forces people to do what they disagree with. The governor is mandating that I mask my kids.”
Orlando said he personally does not believe masks are effective against the spread of the coronavirus, but believes parents should have the right to make their own decision on whether to send their kids to school with a mask.
He said parents who favor masks would be just as upset if the governor forced their kids to go to school mask-less. “We should all be supportive of parental choice,” Orlando said.
Orlando, a married father of three, said his children go to school with masks with the exception of his oldest daughter who has a medical exemption, signed by a pediatrician.
His views differ from the other six candidates running for the Board of Education in this November’s municipal election, including those in his own party.
The Sun interviewed all of the candidates, so families who have been grappling with issues during the pandemic can learn where they stand.
Dennis Condon, a Republican running for the Board of Education, and incumbents, fellow Republicans Christina Cascella and Jeff Fulchino, point out that Monroe public schools are beholden to the State on many issues, including COVID guidelines.
“We’re following the governor’s executive orders,” Cascella said.
Jerry Stevens, a retired teacher and incumbent Democrat serving on the Board of Education, also noted the limitations on local decision making.
“I don’t think people understand, when you’re elected to any Board of Education in Connecticut you’re governed by the State Board of Education,” Stevens said. “You’re an extension of the State Board of Education. It’s like an unfunded mandate. Right now, the governor said through Feb. 15 there’s an executive order for masks to be worn.”
Theresa Oleyar and Chrissy Fensore Martinez, two fellow Democrats running for the Board of Education, both favor masks.
“I look forward to the day when my children don’t wear masks in school, of course,” Oleyar said. “But when I see that my children’s own pediatrician has increased PPE recently with an uptick in breakthrough cases, that’s who I’m going to trust that masks and other PPE are effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus.”
“The priority has been to make sure everybody’s safe,” Oleyar said. “Personally, I’ll continue listening to all of the stakeholders. This includes people with a different opinion than me. I will take that into consideration, but at the end of the day I’ll listen to our medical professionals and both our State and local administration — and I’m going to follow their lead on that.”
Oleyar served as a parent representative on the Distance Learning Committee, at the beginning of the pandemic, and on the Reopening Committee.
“I think Monroe’s done a great job,” she said. “All our meetings, the amount of effort and work our district put in to make an impossible situation work, it’s really amazing.”
Keeping kids in school
Martinez attributes masks and isolating with preventing the spread of COVID-19 in her household last year — once when her stepson had it in November and another time when she and her husband, Jim, got it on Christmas.
Martinez favors following the guidelines recommended by the experts in the Monroe Health Department, the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all who recommend that children wear masks in school.
She also wants the district to continue following the guidance of Dr. Nimrod Dayan, who specializes in pediatric infectious disease and serves as a medical advisor for Monroe public schools.
“It’s not really an opinion issue,” Martinez said of parental choice on masks. “It’s what the experts tell us to do to keep our kids safe. To me, this isn’t a political issue. It’s public health. I’m not a doctor. I rely on the doctors and the medical professionals.”
Condon said the CDC and World Pediatric Association recommend wearing masks. “Prevention is a good thing,” he said.
“Medically, they’re effective if they’re done right — N95 masks,” Condon said. “But with cloth, you yawn and it can get through. It’s effective, but it’s not perfect. Nothing’s perfect.”
“If you do things in an effective way, it reduces the numbers,” Cascella said of new cases.
Fulchino and Cascella said their preference would not be for wearing masks, but they follow the recommendations of the experts.
“We have a team that analyzes the data,” Fulchino said. “We have experts in place that we rely on at a local level to make decisions. If the decisions were at the local level, we would rely on the experts as much as possible.”
“No one on the board is an expert,” Cascella said.
If decision making was at the local level, Cascella and Fulchino said there would still be an emphasis on having kids learning in school five days a week.
“It’s about stability,” Fulchino said. “I have two kids, who were in second and fourth grades last year. It was very difficult at the elementary school level for them to be socially and emotionally connected. At that level, they learn best in person.”
Both Condon and Stevens noted that the Board of Education’s goal is to ensure the district provides the best education in a safe learning environment.
‘People aren’t used to this’
Martinez said there are many policies to keep kids safe in the town’s schools, the one place where hundreds of students gather for several hours a day, so she does not understand why there is opposition to students wearing masks.
“In schools we have children who are significantly at risk,” Martinez said. “We’re educating kids with medical conditions and other special needs that put them at a higher risk, so I’m wondering how it’s become such a divisive topic, when it’s a simple measure to make kids safe.”
As of September, 520 kids died from COVID-19 in the U.S. and almost 25,000 children were hospitalized from it, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics. Martinez noted that not every State’s numbers are included in that calculation.
“Everyone focuses on the percentage and not that those 520 children are somebody’s baby,” Martinez said. “I’m surprised over the lack of empathy. I don’t want to gamble with children’s lives.”
“We know through real life data that COVID did not spread in schools with masks and in other schools without masks it did,” she said. “I think the Supreme Court ruled that public health overrules individual choice. You can’t just walk into a school and do whatever you want, so I don’t how why this particular topic changes that.”
Orlando said he understands the initial reaction to mask up early in the pandemic, when the country did not have the answers. But now that there is more data and studies, be contends it is not necessary for children to wear masks.
“Statistically, we know children are not at high risk for COVID and they’re also not high vectors of transmission,” Orlando said. “You look at the European CDC and the UK and they recommend not masking school children.”
According to a study on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control website, mitigation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in schools includes “face masks in certain circumstances and for certain age groups.”
“In Britain, Young Children Don’t Wear Masks in School,” an article published in The New York Times on Aug. 27, 2021, says:
And they handled the Delta spike in ways that might surprise American parents, educators and lawmakers: Masking was a limited part of the strategy. In fact, for the most part, elementary school students and their teachers did not wear them in classrooms at all.
Instead, the British government focused on other safety measures, widespread quarantining and rapid testing.
Orlando said face masks affect children socially and pointed to a Hartford Courant article, published on Oct. 6, 2021, about the number of children seeking urgent behavioral health care in Connecticut tripling since the summer.
Condon recalled how the country battled polio decades ago, before a vaccine created immunity. “No one thinks twice about the polio vaccine,” he said, adding of the current pandemic, “people aren’t used to this.”
Stevens said he believes in the medical professionals, adding he received both of his vaccinations and plans on getting the booster shot when it’s available to him.
Orlando said his job mandated that he get the COVID vaccine. “I would have chosen not to be vaccinated,” he said.
He said other diseases can be eradicated with vaccines, but COVID-19 cannot be, because it can also be transmitted by animals.
“I think mandating that people take medicine is not the right thing to do,” Orlando said, adding of the COVID vaccines, “if it’s not stopping it, what’s the point?”