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.”
“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.”
“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.