ELLSWORTH — In a 4-0 decision, School Board members Thursday reversed an optional mask policy approved two weeks ago, in favor of mandatory masking based on community transmission rates in Hancock and Penobscot counties. Under the newly approved plan, masking will be required when either or both counties have substantial or high transmission rates as determined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Our goals are twofold,” said Superintendent Dan Higgins, to keep children and the community safe and to keep students in school five days a week.
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal masking in schools.
The board will next meet Sept. 14 to determine benchmarks, including for students not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines and those with special education plans. Superintendent Dan Higgins stated the issue will be a standing agenda item moving forward. The schools will issue the week’s mask status on Sundays.
The plan is somewhat of a compromise between Chairwoman Kelley McKenney and board member Muneer Hasham, who had advocated for universal masking unless community transmission rates were low or none. McKenney was not sold on having Penobscot County in the plan but “traded” its inclusion for no masks for moderate or lower community transmission rates in both counties. Hasham is a virologist and immunologist at The Jackson Lab and voted for the optional masking plan two weeks ago.
“We’re going to revisit this,” he said. “There’ll be more data out. I don’t know what the Delta variant is going to do. I can guarantee you there will be other variants.”
Board members listened to over 90 minutes of often passionate statements from parents and community members who showed little if no common ground on whether they wanted their children wearing masks in school this year.
“Do we choose to make this the hill we’re willing to die on?” parent Nate Hanson asked.
Over 60 people filled the Ellsworth Elementary School cafeteria — with 3 feet between each chair — with about half leaving before the board vote. One parent was escorted out by law enforcement after personal remarks directed at McKenney.
As at the Aug. 12 meeting, parents against student masks spoke of the harm they may cause to emotional and social development, especially in younger children.
“It’s important for kids to be able to talk to each other facially,” David Webb said, before later shouting from his chair, “You [board members] have to remember, you work for us!”
Katie Clough, a parent of a special needs student, said, “When my son started kindergarten last year [masked], he stopped smiling … He dreads coming to school.”
Doctors, nurses, parents and other members of the public were each given three minutes to speak and filled their allotted seconds with both pleas and statistics to bolster their masking stance.
“We don’t know all the answers yet,” said parent and MDI Hospital physician Casey Hanson, who has taken out papers for to run for the City Council in November. “There’s no question that masks help. There’s no convincing data that masks hurt kids.”
Parent Kelli Casey pointed to the 95 percent vaccination rate for Ellsworth students 12 and above, as reported by the Maine CDC. “We need to focus our efforts and plans for a reversal [of masking] based on transmissions.”
Board member Abigail Miller, on vacation and unable to participate remotely, was not present at the meeting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error. Casey Hanson has taken out papers to run for City Council, not the School Board.