How should Monroe’s school board handle mask exemptions for meetings?

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Justin Orlando, left, has a medical exemption allowing him to attend school board meetings without a face covering. Fellow board members like, from left, Jeff Fulchino and Dr. Alan Vaglivelo wear masks. The board wants to come up with a uniform policy on masks.

MONROE, CT — Justin Orlando, a newly elected member of the Board of Education, showed up to a budget workshop at Masuk High School without a facial covering last week. Though rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic require masking in schools, Orlando has a medical waiver and was allowed to participate in the meeting.

Since then, Chairman David Ferris said he received several more requests to attend meetings in-person without a mask. He invited the board’s attorney, Stephen M. Sedor, to speak at Monday night’s meeting to ensure things are done correctly going forward.

“I just want to make sure the superintendent and I, and rest of the board, understand it, because we want everyone to be able to attend board meetings,” Ferris said. “I just want to make sure we’re doing what is legal to allow as much access to public meetings as possible.”

Jerry Stevens, a board member, asked Sedor, whose law firm, Pullman & Comley, also represents other school districts, how districts in Connecticut are handling this issue.

Sedor said it is his opinion that most districts have not had the conversation the Monroe Board of Education is now having.

“Most districts are unilaterally having everybody wear a mask and following the ‘Advance, Adapt, Achieve,'” he said of Connecticut Department of Education requirements, “or there are districts where nobody shows up to the board meetings, it’s after hours, no students are present, and they are a little loose with the mask wearing.”

Sedor said requirements from three sources are being followed: Gov. Ned Lamont’s Executive Order 13-A, the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s guidelines, and the Connecticut Department of Education’s “Adapt, Advance, Achieve” guidelines.

“People hate lawyers for saying this, but there is no definitive 100 percent right answer,” said Sedor, who participated in the meeting via conference call. “We are living in times not subject to precedent, so all I can do is give my opinion of what the executive orders say.”

Sedor said the latest DPH guidelines, issued in November, say subject to the exemption provided in Executive Order 13-A, everyone must wear a face mask inside pre-k-12 buildings when students are present.

However, fully vaccinated teachers and custodial staff do not have to wear masks on the weekend or after hours when no students are present.

Executive Order 13-A allows mask wearing exceptions for “anyone for whom doing so would be contrary to his or her health or safety because of a medical condition, behavioral condition, or disability, or anyone under the age of 2 years.”

People are only exempt from the executive order if they provide written documentation that they are qualified for the exemption from “a licensed or certified medical provider, psychologist, marriage and family therapist, professional counselor, social worker, or behavior analyst, the Department of Developmental Services or other state agency that provides or supports services for people with emotional, intellectual or physical disabilities, or a person authorized by any such agency,” the executive order says.

“Such documentation shall not be required to name or describe the condition that qualifies the person for the exemption,” it continues.

Sedor said that is the lower standard to meet, compared to Advance, Adapt and Achieve, which says medical exemptions should not be granted freely or easily.

It says the need for a medical exemption for face coverings is rare, citing conditions such as severe pulmonary disease like cystic fibrosis, emphysema or heart failure — or significant facial burns that would cause extreme pain or interfere with the healing of a skin graft, according to Sedor.

Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza was asked what the district requires for a medical exemption from wearing masks when school is in session.

If a student has a letter saying a mask exemption is needed, Kobza said the doctor is also asked to fill out a form explaining what the medical conditions in Advance, Adapt and Achieve are, and attesting that the student has a qualifying condition — but not to name what the condition is. The district also asks what accommodations can be made.

Kobza said less-than-five students in the entire district have medical exemptions, adding none are learning remotely from home.

Of the health orders, Sedor said, “they were not looking at situations of board meetings as far as I know.”

Sedor’s opinion

“When students are not present, I think it can be argued that masks are not required,” Sedor said. “Here’s where it gets difficult, it becomes a difficult issue based on whether students are present.”

If no students are present, Sedor said it’s his opinion that the executive order with the lower level of proof applies, only requiring a physician’s note not to wear mask.

But he believes a higher standard should be applied when students are present. When students are present, exemptions should not be granted freely or easily, according to Sedor.

The Board of Education has three student representatives from Masuk who share updates early in the meetings before going home. Sedor said this is a gray area.

Though it is not a school setting, Dennis Condon, a board member, suggested the students participate remotely via Zoom.

Ferris wondered if a change of venue, to a location other than a school building, could eliminate the mask issues. Sedor said it can.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that we don’t have a medical voice in this discussion,” said Nick Kapoor, a board member. “I think that’s very important. This is a legal issue, but also a medical issue.”

Kapoor asked if a hybrid model could allow everyone to participate, with those with medical exemptions doing so remotely.

“What if we went to a hybrid model and allowed people to participate via Zoom?” Ferris asked Sedor. “Can we tell anyone that they have to participate in that way?”

“In my opinion it’s a two step process. You only get to say, ‘you may only participate in the hybrid process,’ after you’ve made the decision as to whether or not the exemption under which they are applying qualifies them to attend in person,” Sedor said, “so if you say, ‘you don’t have a valid exemption,’ then the reasonable accommodation would be to have them attend in a hybrid fashion.”

“But if they are entitled to the emption, they are entitled to attend,” he continued, “and in my opinion, you can’t make them attend via remote access — not if they have the exemption.”

Remote capability

“I think a solution to this problem is that we move to Zoom,” Kapoor said. “That does not deny anybody access. It doesn’t deny access to the public. It doesn’t deny them the access to participate in our meetings fully. We did it for a year.”

“I’ll tell you, you just asked us if we’re comfortable. I’m not comfortable sitting here,” Kapoor said. “I wasn’t comfortable sitting here at the last meeting, when we had a board member sitting without a mask on and no statement was made. There was nothing said, so I am not comfortable here. I would be comfortable on Zoom.”

“Nick, you can go remote whenever you want,” Orlando said. “I went remote for the first two meetings, while we were sorting this out, so nobody’s stopping you from going remote. I don’t think that everybody needs to conform to a remote meeting, because you’re uncomfortable. I think that you can go remote and people can still attend in person who feel comfortable.”

Right after the meeting, Kapoor said school board members should be held to a higher standard and, if they cannot comply with the mask mandate, they should participate remotely out of respect for students, staff and teachers.

Ferris said he will look into the technology issue and Kobza will speak with IT to see what the capabilities are for holding remote meetings and recording them.

15 thoughts on “How should Monroe’s school board handle mask exemptions for meetings?

  1. I’m sorry, but Justin Orlando is just causing trouble for the BOE like a spoiled child. Do they really need to be spending extra time debating this and seeking counsel from attorneys? I recall not too long ago that several Board members wanted the conversation about a transgender policy to go away because they considered it unnecessary and a waste of their time.

    Orlando should respect that the rest of the BOE members, including the Masuk representatives, as well as the members of the public, may be uncomfortable about his being there without a mask. Exemption or not, he is in the minority there, and should be willing to wear a mask, or sit at least 6 feet away from everyone, or stay home for the meetings. He should not be acting as if this medical exemption gives him the right to impose his misguided beliefs about masks on everyone else.

  2. That’s absolutely insane. If someone is so unwilling- And I say unwilling because he has yet to disclose an actual reason why he cannot wear a mask- to put a small piece of cloth over his face to help protect the spread, HE can stay home. Just like if you refuse to vaccinate, you should stay home and avoid close contact. It’s ironic how these anti maskers rant about their freedom being trampled on, but then literally take away others freedom to stay healthy and safe. These are the same people who at this point are dead or infected others who are now dead. Selfish.

  3. I agree with Ms Dragonetti and Mr. Kapoor. Going unmasked in these meetings is a bad example for the community that’s required to wear masks in school, and shows a lack of respect or consideration for the safety of other board members and for the public they were elected to serve. Members who can’t or won’t wear a mask should folded in on Zoom, not tell another member that if he doesn’t like it he should stay home. Seriously, Mr Orlando, who does this serve beside yourself?

  4. If masks work why does it matter if Mr. Orlando is wearing one? All of the other people that are concerned should wear their masks extra tight and feel comfortable in their knowledge that they are safe.

    • One wears a mask so that if they have COVID, they’re not spreading it. A mask is to protect others in case you have the virus. That way, if we’re all wearing one and someone has COVID, it’s constrained to that one person.

    • Ryan, I think you may be minimizing how bad Covid can be. If you had a bad case of it, or lost someone to Covid, maybe you would be able to understand how serious it can be. To me it seems reasonable to take every precaution possible to avoid getting it or spreading it to others, especially during these winter months when we spend more time indoors sharing germs with each other. People have the choice to get vaccinated or not. I don’t see how wearing a mask, or else attending the meetings virtually, is such a big sacrifice to make, compared to the suffering many people have experienced from the virus.

      • So trying to stop Covid by the same means that failed the first time makes sense to you. We’ve been in and out of masks for almost 2 years and nothing has changed. Covid is here to stay and we need to accept it and live with it. Make better life choices with health and exercise so your immune system can do the job (yes I know there are people with immune issues, but the common cold is dangerous to them as well).

          • Yeah those good old scientific studies that get they result people pay for. Smoking had scientific studies that said it was beneficial. Oxycontin had scientific studies that it was not addictive. Look at the food pyramid pushed by the government in the 80’s/90’s, 6-11 servings of bread/pasta a day. Or you could look at charts from border counties/states that show the mask mandates have no impact on Covid infections. I’d recommend looking at different California counties or Sweden vs neighboring countries.

  5. I’d like to understand how Mr Kapoor is “uncomfortable” sitting on the other side of the room, much further than 6 ft apart, masked and vaccinated? This appears to be a continuation of his smear campaign that backfired during the election.
    If you listened to or attended the last BOE meeting, many children’s mental health is in jeopardy which is far more important than Mr Kapoor’s relentless pursuit to slander Mr Orlando. Time to move on. He has a medical exemption.
    As a parent I find it disturbing that this is the main focus and took up 45 minutes of our BOE’s volunteered time.

    • There is no reason to be questioning Mr. Kapoor’s discomfort. He may be the one speaking up, but at least he’s trying to prevent the covid virus from spreading to others, including our school children. It’s part of his commitment as a member of the BOE. He has an impressive record of contributions to the BOE and the schools, in addition to his years served on Town Council.

      On the other hand, look at how Mr. Orlando has chosen to begin his first term on the BOE. Are you okay if he visits the schools unmasked & reads to the children? What is he doing to help & protect our kids – save them from the dangers of mask-wearing? He’s focusing on himself.

  6. If the BOE members are sitting and using a school building for these meetings they should be following the same guidelines as everyone else which includes students, teachers, faculty…. You’re just wasting tax payer money in attorney fees instead of focusing in our kids schools and education. Mr. Orlando wear a dam mask for 4 hours during the BOE meetings which occur twice a month and everyone will be happy. You people need to focus on what you got elected for which is make wise decisions that will impact our kids future. STOP waisting everyone’s time and money!

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