SULLIVAN — It was a marathon of a meeting Monday night, the eve of the start of the school year for Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24), with the debate on whether to require masking for students and staff lasting nearly four hours.
In the end, the RSU 24 Board of Directors upheld its Aug. 17 decision to advise but not require mask wearing in the district, with the addendum that Superintendent Michael Eastman will present the board with a remote learning option for families who do not feel safe sending their children to school when others will not be wearing masks. Eastman is to present that plan at the board’s Sept. 7 meeting.
Board members’ votes are weighted based on the populations in the towns they represent. The weighted vote tally was 4,066 to 3,247 in favor of the plan.
Board members Keith Goldfarb, Roy Gott, Jen DesJardin, Jeff Alley and Julia Sheehan voted in favor. Susan Dickson-Smith, Andrea St. George Jones and Janet Wilpan were opposed. Board member Mercy Hardison was absent.
Eastman began the meeting by recommending the board find a compromise between those who wanted masks to be required and those who wanted masks to be optional. He said a way that could be achieved would be to start out with universal masking but to track COVID-19 transmission rates in Hancock and Washington counties and change the plan accordingly if transmission rates drop.
He noted that 80 percent of schools, according to Maine School Management Association, are requiring masks.
Many in the district were not in favor, however, according to a survey sent to parents and staff.
One hundred and fifty-two staff members responded to the survey, with 60 percent favoring optional masks.
Out of the 443 parents who took the survey, 82 percent said masks should be optional.
Eastman shared that the staff vaccination rate was 68 percent, with 5 percent reporting they are unvaccinated and 27 percent not disclosing their vaccination status.
Eastman also relayed data from the Maine Department of Education (DOE), which estimated that 95 percent of eligible RSU 24 students have been vaccinated, although Eastman questioned the accuracy of that figure.
Under DOE guidelines, students attending schools that require masking will have less strict quarantine requirements to follow if a positive case is detected, keeping more kids physically in school amid the pandemic.
Parents and community members on both sides of the issue—those in favor of universal masking and those in favor of making masking optional—shared impassioned testimony both in-person at Sumner Memorial High School and via Zoom. There were 83 people in attendance at the school’s gym, with peak numbers of remote viewers reaching 146.
Parent and state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) said that some children may be unable to wear masks and that all children miss out on forming human connections when they are forced to wear masks. He said that “COVID is very real,” but the virus is not a serious threat to children. He added that he would unenroll his child from the school district if a mask mandate was put in place.
One audience member called the board “communist” and accused members of pushing a “fear-mongering agenda.”
Those who spoke in favor of keeping mask-wearing optional were met with spirited applause from the crowd in the gym.
Some parents in favor of masking offered suggestions for compromise.
Doug Flagg suggested requiring masks until vaccines are approved for children under age 12.
“I think that’s a win-win for both sides,” he said.
Lisa Reilich, who said her child is still suffering from COVID-19 symptoms 18 months after contracting the virus, said she understood the concerns of parents who do not want their children to wear masks. She proposed mandating masks for staff, because her child could choose to be distanced from students who are not masked but could not necessarily do the same from teachers.
During the board’s deliberation, board member Alley said he supported keeping mask-wearing optional, but that it was “essential we protect the rights of the minority.” He favored a remote learning option for parents who are uncomfortable with sending their kids to school if masks are optional.
St. George Jones spoke with a group of students who did not want masking to be required.
“I understand how you feel,” she said. “I don’t want to wear the mask either,” but she added that she was alarmed by local transmission rates. She noted the current Delta variant is different than last year’s strain of coronavirus.
DesJardin questioned how many parents could stay home with their children for 10 days if they needed to quarantine and Dickson-Smith wondered who would be liable if children get sick under the district’s masking plan.
After a flurry of motions and proposed amendments, the board finally voted in favor of having masks be advised but optional with a remoting learning option to be established.