ELLSWORTH — A half-dozen community members stepped to the podium Jan. 13, using strong terms and, in one case, threatening a lawsuit, to inform the city School Board that they feel masks harm students and provide no benefit against COVID-19 transmission. The comments continued a debate that has dogged board members since well before the school year began.
Determined parents and citizens have spoken at meeting after School Board meeting challenging the board’s decision for universal mask wearing for students.
While school boards may adopt optional masking per state policy, members here voted for universal masking, in part because the Maine Department of Education permits close contacts of COVID-positive students to stay in school if universal masking is in place. Community transmission rates also have remained high throughout the school year.
A parent and teacher survey held prior to the school year found about 55 percent of the 919 respondents wanted no masks, and 46 percent wanted some form of required masking.
Personal attacks on the board or specific board members have also become a more usual part of citizen comments.
“You’re all hypocrites,” Daisy Wight told the board, accusing members of being seen unmasked in public and at social gatherings yet wearing them to board meetings.
“Social anxiety, depression, suicide. Are those not items that we should not be thinking about, talking about?” she asked. “When is it going to end? Is it going to end?”
Resident Paul Trego notified the board of demands from what he referred to as the Ellsworth Taxpayers Coalition or lawsuits would be filed.
“You guys will know what that [coalition] is soon enough,” Trego said. “You guys have 90 days to comply. Or else we start getting dirty.”
His demand is for “tested, peer-reviewed proof that masks work on children” and proof “that you are not mentally damaging these children with what you are doing.”
In outlining one piece of the coalition’s plan of action, Trego said, “We’re not the type to commit bodily harm, but we can make damn sure that you can’t walk anywhere in Ellsworth without ridicule.”
“You have awakened a sleeping giant,” he continued. “Every one of you is in trouble.”
Gwen Clark, a regular speaker during the public comment portion of the meetings, made a verbal Freedom of Access Act request for “all information concerning what, how much and who to for services purchased with ESSR (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds.”
The school district has received $3.1 million in federal ESSR funds as part of federal relief funding for schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Clark implied the school department was enforcing masking to obtain funds.
And Casey Hardwick stated that, statewide, 20 school-age children have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since July 2021.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “COVID-19 and Youth in Maine” report, between March 12, 2020, and Dec. 27, 2021, there were 89 hospitalizations of individuals under the age of 25. Of those, 37 percent – 33 cases – were between the ages of 5 and 19. There were 30,048 confirmed and probable cases among that age group.
Fourth-grade student Justin [last name not given] also spoke, reading from a prepared statement.
“For over two years you guys have made me wear a mask, even though they don’t work. I can’t see my friends’ smiles. I can’t see my teachers’ smiles. Why do I have to wear a mask, but you guys don’t? That doesn’t seem fair.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics on its website “strongly recommends that anyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status, wear a well-fitting face mask when in public.”
And states, “Face masks can be safely worn by all children 2 years of age and older, including the vast majority of children with underlying health conditions, with rare exception.”
In other business, the search for a new superintendent is starting following Dan Higgins’ resignation one month ago. Katrina Kane has been serving as interim superintendent in the wake of Higgins’ departure.
“There’s no possible way that I can begin to fill the shoes of what a full-time superintendent was doing,” she said. “I’m pleased to be able to help.”
Kane also serves as superintendent for Hancock and Lamoine schools. And because of a conflict in board meeting times for Kane, the Ellsworth board moved its meetings from the second Tuesday to the second Thursday of each month.