ELLSWORTH — A vote to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on face coverings in schools received unanimous School Board support on Sept. 14, once Superintendent Dan Higgins assured board members the decision could be revisited at any time.
The vote amends the Return to School plan first adopted Aug. 12 with optional masking. The plan was then amended Aug. 26 to base masking requirements on Hancock and Penobscot county community transmission rates.
“We’re in a much different place than [the last meeting],” Chairwoman Kelly McKenney said.
Given the increasing case rates in the past two-plus weeks, board member Paul Markosian — after a lengthy back-and-forth discussion of the school mask plan — said it would be simpler to just follow the CDC.
“They’re experts in epidemiology and medicine, and I think that would be the most effective and fair and productive way to go forward,” Markosian said.
Initial reluctance from Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller was mitigated by the understanding that the policy could be amended when local case rates trend downward.
“Our focus needs to be on keeping our kids in school five days [a week], if possible,” Miller said. “We are this close to losing out … As much hope and faith I held onto that it would be different [this year], that hasn’t happened.”
Large-scale quarantines, such as that in Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24), where nearly 50 people were sent home to quarantine last week, and closures, including Deer Isle-Stonington High School this week, influenced the board to adopt the new measures. Masking is optional in RSU 24 and required in Deer Isle.
“Our [case] statistics are different,” Miller noted.
But that does not mean that all three Ellsworth schools — the elementary-middle school, high school and technical center — have not had student cases, with close contacts sent into quarantine. But the numbers have been relatively low, and not all close contacts had to quarantine, Higgins said. For example, a positive high school case on Sept. 9 had 29 close contacts, but only 15 had to quarantine. The following day, a positive case at the elementary-middle school had 13 close contacts, but only two had to quarantine.
Higgins said the reason for the low number of quarantines was masks and that “right now, we here are not seeing that transmission in the schools.”
Higgins also said the district’s application to participate in pool testing was accepted and testing should start next month. Parents may opt-in to have their children included in a testing pool. For the testing, samples from 7 to 10 nasal swabs are combined for one test. If a positive case is detected, all students in the pool will take individual tests. But quarantining from school will not be required unless a student is symptomatic or receives a positive individual test result, although Higgins noted the CDC does require students in a positive pool test to quarantine from community activities outside school.
The meeting had a much different tone than the Aug. 26 meeting, where parents passionately argued for or against masks. This time, only a scattering of mostly school personnel attended, and once the mask decision was behind them, board members turned to their usual pre-pandemic topics: new hires, resignations, curriculum and bussing.