THORNDIKE — A community survey on the masking policy in Regional School Unit 3 revealed that, of over 1,200 responses, the largest segment preferred masks to be optional for all students and staff.

A total of 646 parents, 219 staff, and 366 students took part in the survey, with 43.7% saying masking should be optional, 36.5% saying it should be required, 12.7% saying it should be optional for those who are vaccinated but required for others, and 7.1% said masks should be required based on transmission rates.

Fifty percent of staff surveyed said they favored requiring all students and staff to wear masks, while 52.5% of parents and 49.2% of students said masks should be optional.

The RSU 3 School Board, after a lengthy discussion at its Oct. 12 meeting, voted to keep the current universal masking policy in place.

With a vaccine for students under 12 on the horizon, colder weather forcing people to congregate indoors more, and the holiday season approaching, more than one board member said it was not the time to change course. Several also said the low transmission rate among students showed that masks were working.

Without a universal masking policy, Superintendent Charles Brown said, additional students are likely to have to quarantine. For example, every student at lunch or in the library is potentially at risk and would need to quarantine, he said, if masks were not mandated.

Because of the outbreak status of the high school, Brown said,  if there is a positive case, regardless of the mask mandate, every student in a classroom has to quarantine unless they are vaccinated.

Approximately 40 parents and community members attended the meeting, voicing their views for and against the mask mandate. One parent chronicled several negative student experiences from wearing a mask, including chronic headaches and coughs, skin issues, sores inside the nose and shortness of breath when playing basketball.

At last report, there were zero cases of transmission within the school, and positive cases were a result of community transmission, one parent said. ”Community transmission is high, but school transmission is not.”

The fact that there is not significant school transmission, another parent said, is evidence that the protocols being followed are working.

A third parent said, “Maybe you (the board) haven’t taken the time to actually research what the science says concerning children and their transmission rate and COVID-19.

“Like you, I’m not a doctor, but I’m not a stupid woman,” she said. “I’m smart enough to read. I’m smart enough to go to the CDC’s own website to research and dig in and find the information that they themselves are reporting.” COVID-19 transmission among students is relatively rare, she added.

“You folks are here because we the people voted to have you here to represent us,” she said. “…We may not have very much power against the board, but collectively, we the people hold the power…”

Another parent agreed, saying, “If you are doing anything but what the poll results show, it is your opinion you are reacting on, not that of the people.”

Still another parent commended the board for its leadership through the unpopular mask mandate decision and alerted members that the divisiveness of the topic had crept into the student body. She brought to the board’s attention the fact that her son had been bullied at school for wearing a mask — something she called “troubling.”

A broader problem emerging in the district, she said, is the division around politics, public health and other issues that “many of us adults have forgotten how to discuss civilly and respectfully, and our students, in turn, are not treating each other with respect.”

She went on to say her family is not alone, adding that she knows of another family that had left the district because the environment of the school had become unwelcoming.

Michael Schaab, Monroe’s school director, said last year there were only two deaths reported in the state from the flu, when typically there are approximately 300. “It is because we are masked,” he said. “I get the choice piece of it. I think our job is to do what’s best for students. I know students’ transmission rate is low — it’s because we have a mandate making it effective.”

Thorndike board member Jesse Hargrove brought up the fact that half the parents who took the survey do not have the choice of vaccinating their children because they are under the age of 12. According to the survey, 55.6% of responses were from parents with students in pre-K through fifth grades.

“We have not been in this situation before where we have had all students in school, with masks, without separation, without spacing,” Hargrove said. Last year during the holidays, there was a massive increase in cases statewide.

“So here we are, coming out of the fall season, getting ready for the holidays, where I’m assuming families and friends are going to be congregating, and then they will be going back into the schools,” he said.

He said the district would be setting itself up for more outbreaks and more disruption over the course of the school year, including returning to remote learning, if it dropped its mask requirement. At this point in time, not all parents have a choice to vaccinate their kids, he said. “If we get to that point of eligibility, perhaps this would be a better conversation then.”

Brooks board member Ashleigh Eastham said it was apparent from the survey that some teachers would consider leaving the district if the mask mandate were dropped.

“During a time of a national shortage of staff, that concerns me quite a bit… . We take this very seriously. This isn’t just us deciding the fate of the kids. …We listen to our neighbors, anyone who is willing to give us any sort of support, advice, opinion in our towns.

“In my town in Brooks, it has been absolutely split,” she said. “This is really hard for us, it’s hard for the teachers, and I still don’t know how I’m going to vote.”

In other business, Brown said pool testing would commence next week at Mount View High School. The testing will be rolled out to other schools in the coming weeks. “There’s a lot of logistics involved,” he said. The testing will require additional staffing on top of the three current nurses, who are already “swamped.”

All students with signed permission forms will be tested weekly in batches and receive results within 48 hours. The process is designed to catch asymptomatic positive cases before they develop symptoms, so students can be removed from the school to quarantine.

If any tests come back positive, each student in that pool will be tested individually with a BinaxNOW rapid testing kit, which gives results in 15 minutes. Anyone receiving a positive result would be sent home to isolate for 10 days and close contacts notified. Students who do not have a consent form for testing would be sent home to quarantine if someone in their class tested positive.

According to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Department of Education’s standard operating procedures, if a classroom does not have assigned seating, all students and teachers are considered close contacts — defined as exposure within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes within 24 hours of a positive test.

The SOP goes on to say that close contacts must quarantine for 10 days from the last known COVID-19 exposure. Every close contact will receive a letter alerting them to the exposure and providing guidance.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. A student who is considered a close contact may forgo quarantine and return to the classroom if they are fully vaccinated, have had COVID-19 within 90 days of the exposure, or participate in weekly school pool testing and exposure was limited to school, as long as they are not exhibiting symptoms. Even though these close contacts can return to the classroom, they still must quarantine outside the school day.

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