The policy was developed by the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the governing body of the state’s scholastic athletic programs. If implemented as scheduled on Dec. 23, it would keep unvaccinated student athletes masked, but give their vaccinated peers the option to not wear masks during sports competitions.
In a Dec. 22 announcement, Connecticut Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said the mask guideline had to be pulled back because of “the rapid rise in COVID-19 community case rates and the emergence of this more contagious variant.” Those who voiced against the policy, however, argued that it was not only a violation of medical privacy, but it would also turn schools into a discriminatory and punishing environment for students already struggling with psychological stress.
Lucas Johnson, a high school senior and founder of advocacy group CT Students for Liberty, told The Epoch Times that the policy would remove a layer of protection for students whose parents decide to not have them vaccinated.
“If a photograph or a video of student athletes goes out, with some of them masked and some unmasked, you can be confident in saying which ones are vaccinated and unvaccinated,” the student leader said. “It’s a violation of medical privacy.”
“For many students, it comes across as a punishment. It’s like if you’ve made the wrong decision,” he said, noting that it is already extremely difficult to wear masks in sports competitions. “The only reason that kids will be masking at all is because of the benefits of sports have, but now they’re going to be separated based off a medical decision that they didn’t even make.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country has seen a 31 percent increase in mental health-related emergency department visits among those 12- to 17-years old from March to October 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Johnson said a policy that could potentially force students out of playing sports would only escalate this ongoing mental health crisis.
“Student athletes who have drawn immense benefit from playing sports, who feel as though their schools are actually striving for ‘Equity and Inclusion,’ now feel as though they are going to have to choose to weigh these benefits these downsides—the violation of medical privacy, the ‘Scarlet Letter’ that is going to be put on unvaccinated students,” he warned.
Several public school districts have expressed similar concerns, and have opted to mask all athletes to avoid discrimination. Earlier this month, the board of Ellington Public Schools sent a letter to Juthani, saying that the policy change could particularly harm students of color, who are disproportionately less vaccinated.
“This is an option that could stigmatize students, causing further mental health anguish and exacerbating behavioral issues in light of mounting challenges,” Superintendent Scott Nicol wrote. “In short, it is not a viable option for consideration especially when vaccination status amongst demographic groups varies widely.”
Johnson’s petition against the mask guideline has received a mixed response from Connecticut lawmakers. “I had some reach out positively, and I had some reach out saying that not only was this good, but that we needed to even take it a step further,” he said, adding that Democrat state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg replied that unvaccinated students should not be attending school at all.
The universal mask mandate in Connecticut schools, according to Johnson, has already created a culture in which masked students are motivated to bully the unmasked peers into conformity. Although hospitalizations and deaths as a result of COVID-19 are very rare among young children, many students are kept from learning about those facts and genuinely see their unvaccinated or unmasked peers as a threat to the community.
“Schools are coming back and telling kids that you need to mask up your face because you’re the unvaccinated population, and you’re a danger to your friends and your family,” he said. “And you have students who fall for that.”
In one incident Johnson cited as an example, a 10-year-old student was told by his peers that he was “a waste of human life,” simply because the boy’s medical condition prevents him from wearing a mask at school.
“When your teachers and your administrators have a universal response, as they’re directed to by the state, you will have kids who latch on to that, and you will have an entire class that goes after this kid: ‘Just go do it!’ ‘Just go comply!'” Johnson said. “So you are having kids who are systematically being encouraged to gang up on these kids.”
In a call to action, Johnson encouraged concerned citizens to speak out so that policymakers know who they have to answer to.
“When people stand in silence, when all people are willing to do is write up an angry Facebook comment, nothing is going to change,” he told The Epoch Times. “But the thing is, every single lawmaker that is making these decisions is systematically harming children [and] has to answer to every single one of us citizens.
“Things will happen when people stand up, even if that’s as simple as writing a letter or attending a rally,” he continued. “We do have a chance of fighting this fight. The tides are turning in our favor, but we need people to stand up.”