ELLSWORTH — There may be no hotter seat in the country right now than a school board seat, and Ellsworth is no exception.
At a raucous Aug. 12 board meeting, attended by parents vehemently against masking, board members voted 4-1 to allow optional masks for students and staff except for in high-traffic areas, where masking would be required.
But parents in favor of masking who did not attend the meeting, instead emailing their views to board members, feel their voices were publicly ignored. The board acknowledged receiving emails from pro-mask parents but did not read any out loud.
“I don’t think they really listened,” said Marleina Ford, who emailed her public comments to board members. “I think they pretended to listen. It feels like the loud people were the ones who got the attention.”
Board Chairwoman Kelly McKenney told The American that the board received roughly 40 emails on the issue.
“I would say to parents, I know you feel that everyone feels the same way you do,” McKenney said. “We’re actually receiving the same number [of emails] from parents who feel the opposite.”
Parents who support a masking requirement say the board ignored recommendations by public health and science experts such as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), which advise masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status and local transmission rates. Masking also is recommended in indoor public settings in areas with substantial levels of community transmission. As of Aug. 21, Hancock County was in the “substantial transmission” category based on new positive cases.
The board has called an emergency meeting for Thursday, Aug. 26, to further discuss the issue, including setting benchmarks for when to tighten masking requirements at city schools. Superintendent Dan Higgins and the board have repeatedly said that in-person, five-days-a-week school is their top priority.
With the possibility of a large turnout of both pro- and anti-maskers, McKenney said law enforcement will be present. “We’re also considering what we can do so folks who are concerned about contracting COVID can feel safe attending. I’m not sure if that will mean that masks are required or [to] meet in a larger space so folks can socially distance, or both.”
Meanwhile, a survey sent to parents and guardians, and teachers and staff, found about 55 percent of the 919 respondents wanted no masks, and 46 percent wanted some form of required masking.
McKenney holds a bachelor’s degree in community health education, but when it came time for the board to vote on a masking plan, she said she looked to the survey results.
“It was really hard for me to vote opposite from what the CDC and AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] recommends,” she said. “It was really the survey we did [that decided for me].”
“It’s a fluid situation,” she added. “It’s not set in stone.”
Just as two parents at the Aug. 12 meeting told board members they would pull their children from school if masking was required, some pro-mask parents are saying the same thing.
“If the policy doesn’t change, we will home-school,” said Ann Elizabeth Dudeck, who teaches in another district. “We are not afraid of the virus. We are not sore losers. We are educated people who know science and doctors know more than the regular person.”
And, after seeing “all the hatred filled comments on the internet towards me” — Facebook screen shots sent to The American verified this — she said she does not think many parents will mask their children whatever the school requires, and that the school will not be able to enforce mask rules.
“Keeping our kids safe should be our number one goal … I was 110 percent on board with Ellsworth with everything they’ve done, until this point,” she said.
Ford also said she wishes the Department of Education Standard Operating Procedure for positive cases in schools, which had been updated just hours before the board met, had been discussed.
“Everyone was saying the goal was to have kids in school,” Ford said. “But the SOP says if the school has a masking policy, if there’s a positive case, the kids can still stay.”
According to the SOP, if a school has a mandatory masking policy, “then an exposed classroom student does not need to quarantine from regular school-day activities when the student close contact was at least 3 feet from an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) provided that: I. The school enforces consistent and correct use of well-fitting masks; and II. no direct physical contact occurred.”
“Whether you agree masks work [or not], if you want the kids there, universal masking is what’s going to make it possible,” Ford said.
Many parents who spoke to board members Aug. 12 — citing low case numbers among children and developmental harm from mask wearing— do not agree.
The board will meet at 6 p.m. on Aug. 26 in the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School cafeteria and livestream the meeting on the Ellsworth School Department YouTube channel. Face masks will be required.