SOUTHINGTON — Near the outset of last week’s Board of Education meeting, Joseph Baczewski Jr., the board vice chairman, had a statement to make in response to recent complaints he and other board members had received.
Those complaints were about Baczewski’s refusal to wear a mask during the group’s in-person deliberations.
It was the third meeting the Board of Education had convened in-person since last March when the Town Council and others began convening meetings remotely, in order to comply with statewide executive orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The board began meeting in-person last month, with members and district officials spread apart throughout the assembly room of the John Weichsel Municipal Center. Public attendance has still been restricted to live stream video and telephone remote access.
Baczewski during those three meetings declined to wear a face mask during deliberations while other board members and school officials wore masks.
Baczewski’s decision prompted complaints from some members of the public who suggested if district students and staff are required to wear masks in school, board members should be modeling that same behavior.
Baczewski said he has chosen to follow Gov. Ned Lamont’s current executive orders and maintained he is modeling the behavior that should be expected of staff and students.
“I wear my mask only when I need to,” Baczewski said. “I wear my mask into this building because I like to talk with people. I take it off when I am seated and spaced appropriately from others. If I need to get up or when I leave, I put my mask back on. Why do I do this? Because I want to model the behavior I expect from our students in this town.”
Baczewski, who works in the health industry, explained he relies on being able to read patients’ non-verbal cues and gestures during treatment. Face masks, though important in reducing the spread of COVID-19, have obscured many of those non-verbal cues and made communication more difficult, he said.
Baczewski noted that early on into the pandemic, he had caught the virus, despite having had the necessary protective equipment.
“I had to deal with the fact that local and national news assumed that this infection was a death sentence,” Baczewski said. He soon started to feel better.
During the same meeting, Robert S. Brown, a board colleague also gave a statement on why he wears a mask. He stated, “the number one way for individuals to prevent spreading COVID to others is to wear a mask.”
“I understand the purpose of a mask is more to prevent me from spreading COVID to others,” Brown said, noting his 73-year-old wife has a compromised immune system.
“For me to bring home COVID and give it to her would probably kill her,” Brown said. “So I live cautiously. Not in fear, but cautiously.”
Baczweski’s decision appears to be at odds with stipulations laid out in the board’s most recent meeting agendas. Those stipulations state, “Mask/face coverings must be worn inside the Municipal Center. A physical distance of six feet must be maintained.”
Board Chairwoman Terri Carmody said Baczewski’s decision led to her receiving personal attacks from the public because the perception is “I did nothing about it.”
Carmody said although she had asked Baczewski to wear a mask, she has no legal right to force him to do so. Baczewski, in response to her request, cited the executive order, which states a mask is not required so long as there are fewer than 25 people in a given space and they are spaced at least six feet apart.
“I could not throw him out of the meeting. I did not have legal right to do that. However the example he is setting as an elected Board of Education member is just not right and I made that very clear,” Carmody said. “... I know there are parents and teachers who are very very upset about that.”
Fellow board member Zaya Oshana Jr. also disagrees with Baczewski’s decision. But he said, there has been no confrontation. Like Carmody, he said he has been contacted numerous times about it.
“We should be modeling the behavior we expect students and staff to do. If we’re not modeling it during a meeting, how can we expect them to wear a mask throughout an entire school day. We only have to wear a mask for an hour.
“We have to provide a safe environment. It's not a personal choice. It's a safety choice to make it safe for everyone,” Oshana said.