ELLSWORTH — “It’s on a lot of parents’ minds, will children have to wear masks or not?” Superintendent Dan Higgins began the discussion on planning for the return of staff and students to schools come September. However, the discussion had already started when resident Gwen Clark posed the question at the start of the July 13 School Board meeting.
The district plans a fully in-person, five-days-a-week start to the school year, Higgins said.
He noted that the state’s civil emergency expired on June 30, removing the health and safety requirements previously in place.
“Right now, if people are fully vaccinated, we’re not requiring masks,” Higgins said. “If not vaccinated, we’re strongly recommending they wear masks.”
While the Maine Center for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Education continue to issue guidance on health and safety protocols for COVID-19, at this point the decision is a local one, Higgins said, although he noted “federal talk” on the issue.
The Department of Education recommendations include distancing 3 feet when possible. But that guideline and others could change before September, and Higgins said the district will use guidance from the Maine CDC and the Department of Education in its decisions on health and safety protocols.
The looming question was how to handle unvaccinated students and staff. While Higgins said he did not recommend mandating masks for staff, he did ask, “But for staff members not fully vaccinated, should we recommend they wear masks?”
With a 70 percent vaccination rate among eligible residents, board Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller said that Hancock County “is where we needed to be” to reach herd immunity, the scientifically accepted threshold for low transmission of diseases.
“Unless something changes, we’re in a pretty safe spot,” she said, recommending that the district should not expect those 12 years of age and above to wear masks. Vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.
“But we need to support the students who do wear masks,” she added.
Board member Muneer Hasham, a Jackson Lab scientist researching immune disorders and infectious diseases, also weighed in. With the high rate of mutation of the COVID-19 virus, he recommended unvaccinated children in close contact with others should wear masks.
“That’s just my expert opinion, I would say,” he said. He also suggested classroom “pod testing,” a screening method that pools all tests from a group of people. If any tests come back positive, then individuals are tested for positivity.
“This has become a political, or some kind of strange issue,” he noted. “Science doesn’t care. The virus doesn’t care.”
In other business, Kelly McKenney was elected board chairwoman and Miller was re-elected as vice chairwoman. In addition, board members unanimously accepted negotiated contracts with the district’s bus drivers and custodians. Both groups received raises, with McKenney stating: “It was just recognizing how hard everyone was working over the pandemic, and our current economic situation and the job situation out there. We need [them] and we want them to be with us, to feel valued.”