'It's child abuse': Darien parents want students unmasked in schools

DARIEN — Parents are calling for students to be unmasked when classes resume in the fall, while Republican school board members are considering sending a letter to state leaders in an effort to ease the COVID restrictions.

“I’m sick of hearing the excuse that we can’t unmask our kids,” parent Andrea Jeraci said during Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

“What amazes me most is that you all just sit there and act like you’re protecting our children,” she said.

“It’s child abuse, period,” Jeraci said. “That’s the way I see it.”

Darien Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley explained the local school districts are following the state Department of Public Health guidelines.

While he said about 200 parents of around 240 surveyed in Darien want mask restrictions lifted for students, Addley said it wasn’t a choice the administration could make.

“I would not recommend the board going against the recommendations … as frustrating as that is,” he said.

Addley said he and some superintendents have discussed easing the quarantine guidelines, but for now, are waiting to see what the new mask guidelines will be for the next school year.

“I can’t advocate for removing the masks,” he said, acknowledging that the process is “extremely slow-moving.”

But school board member John Sini asked what the ramifications would be if the town did not follow the DPH guidelines.

“Has it been explored?” he asked.

Addley said there would be financial consequences, “if not other things.”

BOE chairman David Dineen, a Republican, asked board members if they wanted to send a group letter to the state government on the matter.

Response to the idea fell mainly along party lines, with other Republicans in favor of a letter loosely advocating for more local autonomy in the decision-making process, while the two Democrats in attendance expressed hesitation about the letter’s purpose or appropriateness.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Republican member David Brown said. “I’d be happy to pursue it.”

“What are we protecting our kids from at this point? What are we protecting ourselves from in this room?” said Sini, a Republican, questioning why board members were even wearing masks during their meeting.

“I just heard our medical professional say that he felt the masks were appropriate,” said Democratic member Sara Parent, noting comments by Timothy Kenefick, director of the Darien Health Department.

“I think there’s very little doubt that they had a profound impact on slowing the transmission rate,” Kenefick said of masks, stating that as other mitigating factors — including distancing and sanitizing — have also been used, it’s hard to determine the exact impact of masks.

Kenefick said recent case numbers have been very low, but pointed out coronaviruses are seasonal, so it’s possible there could be an upswing in the fall. He also said the vaccine was not 100-percent effective, and may not even help those with immunity issues.

Kenefick also corrected one parent’s claim to the board that COVID is less dangerous in children than a typical flu.

“COVID is actually significantly more dangerous to children than influenza,” he said, with 200 flu deaths in a year considered to be an especially high number, compared with 300 to 400 COVID deaths among that age group this past year.

“Yes, our local professionals have said we want to follow mandates, but our local data is clear,” Sini countered. “There’s no spread at this point.”

Republican Debra Ritchie said she is “100 percent” in favor of unmasking students, but “are we saying we will always ignore CDC guidelines?”

“I think we as a board are not health professionals,” she said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of John Sini’s name.