THORNDIKE — Charles Brown, superintendent of Regional School Unit 3, said at the Dec. 13 school board meeting that since Nov. 1 the district has seen 86 cases of COVID-19 and 562 individuals have had to quarantine.

Calling the previous month both time-consuming and draining, Brown asked board members to imagine “562 calls our administration had to make.” Brown also said a Troy Elementary School staff member had tested positive for COVID-19, and most of the student body would need to quarantine.

Staff and students at the school were masked, he said, but because of the close proximity in the elementary classes, most of the 53 students attending Troy would need to stay home.

In an email to The Republican Journal Dec. 14, Brown said as of Sunday, Dec. 12, 38 out of 53 Troy Elementary students were in quarantine, with additional quarantines starting Monday.  He said he did not know how many total students were in quarantine, but added that there were students not present on the day the staff member who tested positive was there, who were able to attend school. All staff are present at the school, aside from the positive individual, he said.

At the elementary level, he said, it is difficult to trace contacts within 3 to 6 feet because of the natural daily movements in a classroom. Brown said his administration would follow up “to the best of our ability” tracking positive cases, but added that parents should let the school know if their child tests positive for the disease. 

According to teacher vaccination data Brown provided, Troy Elementary had a 100% staff vaccination rate. But staff that work across several schools, bus drivers, for example, are classified as “central services,” which has a 61% vaccination rate. At this point, he said, “there is no way to prove how the transmission happened.” 

Teacher vaccination rates in other RSU 3 schools are: Monroe Elementary, 88%; Morse Memorial, 43%; Mount View Elementary, 82%; Mount View Middle, 89%; Mount View High, 76%; Unity Elementary pre-K, 80%; and Walker Elementary, 80%.

Student vaccination rates are: MVHS, 48%; MVMS, 38%; and MVES, 17%, based on students who have participated in vaccination clinics. Twenty-two percent of the student population is enrolled in pool testing. Brown said he thought pool testing participation would be much higher.

The universal masking policy was debated at great length again. Resident Laura Greeley spoke out against the requirement, saying the record number of students and staff in quarantine illustrated that the effort “is not really working” to prevent the spread of the virus.

With a week and a half before the Christmas break, Brown said people can speculate that the number of cases will go up. “The staff is exhausted and burned-out from this,” he said.

Observing a universal mask mandate and following Maine Department of Education’s lead does reduce the number of students having to quarantine, Brown said. If students were unmasked, anyone within 6 feet of a positive case would have to quarantine, as opposed to a 3-foot radius with universal masking.

“We are keeping more kids in school because of the universal masking mandate, whether or not it is mitigating transmission,” he said.

Nicole Hubbard, Montville’s school director, disagreed and argued that “statistically it’s been proven that masking does not work,” adding that at some point, schools need to get back to normal without masks. “I’m done with this,” she said.

Thorndike Director Jesse Hargrove said the progress, while incremental, has been in a positive direction. “I don’t know what data supports removing masks now,” he said,adding that he was worried that students could transmit the virus to parents or grandparents with a weakened immune system.

“We have a role in making sure these numbers don’t increase,” he said.

Hubbard suggested sending out another version of the district-wide universal masking survey, asking only one question this time — do you want optional masking, yes or no?

Both Brown and Hargrove questioned the purpose of the survey. Is the purpose to gauge community opinion or to have a public vote, they asked? Hubbard said the board should vote according to the will of the community. 

Michael Schaab, Monroe’s director, said without background information on the ramifications of masking and quarantining, people may not have enough information to make an informed decision.

Hargrove asked how many parents would be giving qualified opinions, as opposed to emotional opinions. “Nobody wants to wear a mask,” he said. “The question is, is it the right thing to do (do away with the universal mask mandate) at this time?”

Ultimately, the motion to send out an additional community survey on the universal masking policy was narrowly defeated by a vote of 3-4.

Hubbard said that frustrations are building within the community and that the board should at least consider adding a question-and-answer opportunity for meeting attendees. Brown agreed and said, “We can work on that.”

In other news, the board approved spending $40,000 on engineering design for a new transportation facility. Brown explained that last year the board authorized the expenditure, with money coming from a contingency fund. The full cost of the new facility will come before voters in a June referendum.

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