SEARSPORT — Many parents, teachers and community members attended the Aug. 24 Regional School Unit 20 School Board meeting where participants discussed universal masking in schools.

When they met Aug. 10, directors approved following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, but made the distinction that the directives are recommendations, not requirements.

Reached by phone Aug. 26, RSU 20 Superintendent Chris Downing said last year, because of the pandemic, masks were mandated. This year, Downing said, the district is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Department of Education guidelines, but ultimately leaving the decision to parents as to whether a student comes to school with a mask. 

“It is not mandatory and is a parental choice or option,” he said.

While there were a few in attendance who pleaded with the board to require masking inside the school building while transmission rates in the county remain high, the majority of speakers opposed requiring masks.

One parent who favored masks in school said, “I recognize that nobody likes wearing masks, but I’m sure most people would agree, they dislike remote learning even more.” He suggested the board trust recommendations from the experts, such as The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC, for universal masking.

He went on to say that according to Maine CDC, children are getting COVID-19 at the same rate as unvaccinated adults. “We need to apply what we’ve learned,” he said. “Masking works.”

Another parent said he believed masking kids was a form of child abuse. “Some kids have actually committed suicide because of masking, lockdowns, not being able to go to football or basketball games” and the depression that ensues, he said. 

According to the CDC, he said, only .008% of children had died from the virus, and most of the deaths reported were in children who had underlying health conditions. At that percentage, he said, kids have the same chance “of getting hit by a meteor” as getting the virus and dying from it. 

One parent said her daughter has breathing difficulties, and because of remote learning has become isolated and depressed. “We have a lot of mental health days,” she said. “Now she would rather do remote learning again instead of wearing a mask.”

RSU 20 Board Chairman Anthony Bagley read a letter prepared by Searsport school board member David Walsh, who is also a paramedic and wanted to share his opinion on the pandemic. 

“Working on the front lines in Augusta and Waterville,” he said, “I have seen zero children, little extremely ill adults, and even less patients on ventilators… . I have transported one in the past two months, five in the past year to Maine Medical Center on ventilators.

“Where does all this information come from that is being reported about overcrowding in hospitals? … The COVID floors I’ve been on are nearly empty. ICU beds are being used as overflow for regular patients due to the shortage of staffing of regular room nurses. Seeing this all firsthand, I really don’t know where these numbers are coming from.”

Ultimately the board voted against mandatory masking inside the district schools. The topic of masking will be discussed as the situation evolves, in public board meetings held the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. The board also gave the superintendent authority to make changes depending on the situation at hand for the safety of staff and students.

Students will return to school full-time and in-person this year. Wednesday, Sept. 1, is the first day for kindergarten through sixth and ninth grades, with an early dismissal at 11:30 a.m. All other students will begin Thursday, Sept. 2. Students should arrive by 7:45 a.m. and dismissal is at 2:30 p.m. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires masks for all people on a school bus or van.

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