BELFAST — Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors had a lengthy discussion Aug. 9 on whether the school district should require students to wear masks. It voted down a motion from board member Steve Hopkins to make masks optional for students, but subject to change via board decision based on county virus case rates.

Instead, board members decided to put the issue off until the next board meeting Aug. 23 so the superintendent can gather public opinion from a poll and the administration can develop a better plan to monitor virus outbreaks within the school system.

Some members of the public spoke in opposition to mask mandates and pool testing. One resident demanded that the board start meeting in person. “I want these school board meetings open to the public, face to face,” he said. The board has been meeting via Zoom since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Tasha Hoover spoke during the public comment period and said while she understands why masks were required as a precaution against a lot of unknown factors last year, she does not think they should be mandated this year.

She said masks can cause infections, reduce socialization and decrease learning among children. She requested that the school’s science-literate staff review information she submitted regarding the concerns she spoke about.

“This has to be an evidence-based decision, it has to look out for the kids, and this can’t be something that’s just based on opinion or feel or seems right or someone told me it was a good idea,” she said.

Shannon Robbins, school nurse for Ames and Gladys Weymouth schools, said she would feel negligent if she did not request that masks be mandated for students indoors.

“I think we all thought in June that it was going to look really different, we were all really hopeful, and unfortunately with the current rate in Waldo County … we are two and a half times greater than what the U.S. CDC considers a high transmission rate, two and a half times greater,” she said.

She said no one wanted to have children in masks last year, but students did well following the mask mandate.

Support for a mask mandate appeared split among board members, some in support of a mandate and others against it. Board member Cory Seekins said he does not think the virus is going away and cases will continue to increase and decrease over the coming school year, so the board is going to just have to manage the virus.

He is concerned that pool testing could have an adverse impact on students’ mental health and learning. “I think it has its place,” he said. “I’m just not sure that school-aged children, who seem to be resilient to this disease, I’m just not sure that this is the place for it.”

Superintendent Mary Alice McLean said the advantage to pool testing is gaining scientific information about the presence of the virus in district schools. Wearing masks is one of the best strategies that could be used to combat virus spread, she added, but the state is not requiring districts to mandate masks currently.

Some board members thought a mask mandate would be pointless if it is not working in tandem with social distancing and sanitization. But Mclean mentioned the improvements made to each school, like HVAC systems, that help sanitize surfaces and circulate air.

McLean said the state and Department of Education recommend all students are in school full-time and to eliminate the remote learning option. She said there are not likely to be a lot of teachers who will be available for remote learning this year.

Hopkins said he believes parents should have the option available to them if they feel that sending their children to school is too much of a risk. Other board members expressed similar opinions.

Some board members floated the idea of a special meeting before the next Aug. 23 meeting, but the majority of board members did not support the idea. McLean said the school could wait a week to start school if that is what board members support. Fall sports would not be affected if the board decided to wait an extra week to start classes, Athletic Director Matt Battani said.

Board members are expected to make a decision about masks at their next meeting Aug. 23, which is about a week before students return to school.