SULLIVAN — Wearing masks will be optional for students and staff of Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) during the upcoming school year. That decision, which is part of the district’s COVID-19 back-to-school plan, was made at the RSU 24 Board of Directors meeting Tuesday night, where parents and community members filled seats set up throughout the Clint Ritchie Gymnasium at Sumner Memorial High School.
RSU 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman said he thought the crowd of roughly 84 people was the largest he had ever seen at a School Board meeting.
Deliberations regarding masks, which mostly consisted of a public comment period, but also included discussion among the board, lasted about an hour and a half.
A common theme among the 15 to 20 members of the public who spoke — all of whom stated that mask-wearing should be optional — was that wearing masks should be a choice left up to parents and not the School Board and that whatever parents choose regarding masking should not be criticized.
Many, if not all the public comments, were followed by applause from the crowd.
Another common theme was concern over students’ mental health and the impacts that following COVID-19 guidelines, such as wearing masks and remaining socially distant from friends, has had on them.
Some parents said they would not send their kids to back to school if wearing a mask was mandated.
Others spoke of physical challenges with wearing masks.
A Sumner teacher stated that, “If we don’t allow choice … all we’re doing is putting the burden on teachers” to enforce mask mandates, which he said takes away from classroom instructional time.
One student, an incoming Sumner senior, said she has only had one normal year of high school and would like to have one more before she graduates.
Prior to the public comment period, Eastman reported that the school’s physician, Dr. Douglas MacGregor of Northern Light Pediatrics, wrote in an email that in reviewing the guidelines from the American Association of Pediatrics, going to school without masks could result in more morbidities and more school closures.
Eastman added that per state guidelines, students would have to continue wearing masks when using school transportation.
Eastman also shared that he received about 20 emails 24 hours before the start of the meeting from community members who thought there should be a mask mandate.
He reported that in a district-wide survey among staff, nearly 73 percent of the 146 respondents said that wearing masks should be optional.
Additionally, he noted that the district’s goal is to get all students back to in-person learning safely.
Following the public comment period, discussion ensued within the board. Board member Susan Dickson Smith, who was the only board member wearing a mask, voiced concern over an increase in transmission of the virus. She said not wearing masks could result in more school closures if more students and teachers need to quarantine, something that has been difficult for working parents.
Her comments were met with some interruptions from the crowd.
Board member Keith Goldfarb responded by saying that the discussion had been respectful until the interruptions. He stated that if the conversation was about promoting choice and respecting different opinions, Dickson Smith’s viewpoint shouldn’t be “dissed.”
Board member Jennifer DesJardin, who supported following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend masking in schools, said she wanted there to be metrics developed to determine how many cases need to be reported within the district to make mask-wearing mandatory.
Chairman Roy Gott of Franklin suggested Eastman look into metrics for the board’s next meeting.
Eastman said if an emergency arises, action will need to be taken and that the back-to-school plan needs flexibility.
Board member Jeff Alley, who voiced early on in the meeting that he regretted voting against having a fall sports season last year, then made a motion for mask-wearing to be optional for the upcoming school year.
Goldfarb made a motion to amend Alley’s motion to say that the district, per CDC guidelines, advises wearing masks, but will not make it a mandate. The amendment passed, with Alley and board member Julia Sheehan opposing it. Goldfarb said he wanted to recognize the viewpoints of those who follow the guidelines from the CDC.
“We are here to build community,” he said. “Little gestures like that can build community.”
The final vote to approve mask-wearing as optional passed 7-1, with Dickson Smith opposing and Andrea St. George Jones absent from the meeting.
The decision is similar to the one made by the Hancock Grammar School, which will also not mandate mask-wearing, except for on school transportation. The Lamoine Consolidated School as of Wednesday morning had not yet made a final decision on mask-wearing. Those two schools share a superintendent, Katrina Kane.