BLEFAST — Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors approved district guidelines to address the coronavirus at its Aug. 23 meeting, including requiring students and faculty to wear masks inside all district schools.

Schools will shift among four predesignated plan based on community transmission levels. Blue is the plan for low transmission rates, yellow is the plan for moderate transmission rates, orange is the plan for substantial transmission rates and red is the plan for high transmission rates.

All four plans require everyone to wear masks inside district buildings, with the requirement to be reviewed by the superintendent and board once a month at a board meeting. Masks will also be required in any district vehicle, including buses.

Several people spoke in favor of requiring masks for students and teachers at the virtual meeting and a few people spoke against the requirement.

Many speakers favored mask mandate as a safety measure against the delta variant, which is much more easily transmissible than previous iterations of the virus. A number of them thought that if the protocols worked to prevent outbreaks in the school district last year, they should be continud this year. Some expressed frustration that board members were even thinking about making masking optional.

“I’m just disgusted and outraged that you are not putting more value on my daughter’s and my son’s health,” Melissa Woodrow said.

A few people spoke against a mask requirement, saying the choice should be left up to parents. They argued that masks might be appropriate for some children but not for others. “I have a special needs son and he has a real problem communicating, and so he really needs to see people, and with a mask covering up their face, it’s been really difficult for our family,” Nikki Sheafe said. “For me, I’m going to choose not to mask, but I also, I respect everybody’s decision.”

One parent threatened to pull their child out of school if the board passed a mask mandate and another threatened to pull their child out of school if a mask mandate was not implemented.

Board member Steve Hopkins was the only one to vote against the guidelines, saying he felt masking should be on a voluntary basis. Member Cory Seekins had expressed opposition to a mask mandate at the previous board meeting, but said he has had to put his personal beliefs aside based on input he has received from parents. He stressed how hard students are struggling with their mental health through the pandemic, as well as trying not to get ill. “I just hope for the sake of our kids, that the cure is not worse than the actual issue,” he said.

Other board members supported the measure as a way to better protect children against the virus in school. “I could not in good conscience gamble with other peoples’ children and go against what our local nurses are saying, what the task force is saying, what CDC is saying,” board member David Crabiel said. “… I think anything we can do to maybe let the kids stay in school we have to do, and so I can definitely come down on the side of the plan.”

After the last board meeting Aug. 9, the district issued a survey to sample community opinions about what guidelines should be. There were 1,230 responses, with 77% of those respondents being parents.

The majority of respondents, 60%, supported a mask mandate. The vast majority of respondents, 91%, supported in-person learning. Thirty-six percent of teachers who responded to the survey said they were comfortable making masks optional, 34% of staff thought students should be required to wear them and 29% thought masks should only be required based on county transmission rates.

Other guidelines include no mask requirement when students are outside and keeping a three-foot social distance between people in the school buildings. Washing hands will also be encouraged.

The district will promote vaccinations for eligible students and faculty and will conduct pool testing to monitor for the presence of the virus in the schools. The testing will be done by PCR test, which can detect the virus before a person is symptomatic.

There will be pre-screening by parents, students and staff daily before entering district buses or buildings.

The district will continue contact tracing and require people in the schools who test positive for COVID-19 to quarantine themselves. Quarantine exceptions for people who are found to have been in close contact with an infected person include those who are fully vaccinated and those who are in pool testing and did not test positive for the virus.

The school will offer in-person learning regardless of the community transmission rate, unless otherwise recommended by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ventilation systems were installed last school year to help circulate air in district schools. The district spent about $1 million in federal funds on the systems, Superintendent Mary Alice McLean said.

The Maine Principals Association will set guidelines for sports activities. Right now, student athletes are required to wear masks inside buildings and during close activities, like huddles, but not required to wear them otherwise. Spectators are not required to wear masks to outdoor sports events.

Discussions among board members remained civil and the guidelines passed by a vote of seven to one. A copy of the plan can be found on the district’s website.

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