NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (WTNH) – Back to school means new COVID guidance, and for many students and teachers, the first year without a mask mandate.

News 8’s Jodi Latina sat down with the new superintendent of schools in New Britain about the start of school.

12-year-old Emma and her 8-year-old sister Anna are ready to start the new school year. Will they have to wear a mask?

“You don’t have to, but it’s optional,” said Emma Finelli.

This year, Connecticut school districts are giving families the choice of whether children should wear a mask unless they are recovering from COVID. It’s part of the new state protocol which focuses on keeping kids in school safely.

“Someone might get COVID, but, you know, they’re out for even less amount of time and they’re back, and so, there are just less disruptions,” said Lisa Fanelli, a parent.

No more contact tracing is also a big change. During the pandemic, the Fanelli children would spend time in a tent in the front yard during COVID disruptions. Lisa, a teacher, is keenly aware of the COVID learning loss.

“They were doing everything on an iPad, and so you don’t realize, you don’t think about those things that suffer like handwriting,” Lisa said.

Anna is up to speed this year and looking forward to elementary school.

“Not having to wear a mask and having the same teacher,” Anna said.

Over in New Britain, the district held a back-to-school bash where 500 backpacks and uniforms were handed out. The new school superintendent says the city health district is guiding him on new COVID protocols, which are in line with the state and federal governments.

“More normal instruction, no more hybrid, no more remote. We are looking forward to having kids with us every day of the school year,” said Dr. Tony Gasper, New Britain Schools Superintendent.

If someone gets sick with COVID, the new drill is “test, mask, go.”

“Any student or staff test positive, they stay home for five days. They are allowed to come back on day six if they wear a mask,” Dr. Gasper said.

If they are unable to wear a mask or refuse to do so, Dr. Gasper says, “They would have to come back after day ten. That’s the only time [the mask] is required.”

The new protocol will be sent home to parents. Dr. Gasper says about half of the district’s high school students are vaccinated against COVID and 30 percent of the middle school and elementary school students are vaccinated.

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The staff doesn’t report information about vaccination status.  

In the meantime, the district needs middle school science teachers but overall is at 96 percent for staffing. They are making up some of the vacancies with federal COVID relief money.

“We’ve used federal recovery money to hire people we call TA, teaching assistants, to help cover classrooms in need of substitutes or we can’t find a substitute,” Dr. Gasper said.

A pre-pandemic policy to have Kindergarten through 8th-grade students wear uniforms is back. High school students have a dress code.

Dr. Gasper asked staff to voluntarily wear a mask during convocation when everyone gathered in the auditorium. They did because they didn’t want the school year to start off marked by a lot of absences.