BELFAST — Regional School Unit 71 directors approved a revised standard operating procedure from the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention at their Jan. 10 meeting. The meeting was postponed an hour and then conducted over Zoom because some audience members at the meeting were not wearing masks.

After reconvening at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom, Superintendent Mary Alice McLean went over the revisions with board members. The most prominent revisions include no quarantining for close contacts if the district sticks to universal masking.

Requiring students to stay in quarantine can have a negative effect on their academics and mental health, she said. But in order to keep kids from  having to quarantine, they must wear masks. “The cost of not having to quarantine students and staff is making the commitment to universal masking,” she said.

Another revision McLean discussed was the decision to reduce the required isolation period for those who test positive for the virus from 10 days to five days. However, under the new guidelines, athletes and performing artists in the district must wear masks at all times during games and performances. Previously, the board had decided to allow athletes and performers not to wear masks while participating in a game or performance.

“But if we don’t require our athletes, our performing artists, our students to wear masks in competitions and in rehearsals and practices, we won’t be able to stop quarantining our students and our staff,” she said.

The CDC is still deciding if sports can be excluded from the masking rule, but for now the superintendent has been advised that student athletes and performers should wear masks while participating in games and performances.

“There are many in our community that are so pointed, that are angry, that are exhausted and are frustrated that we are still battling the coronavirus pandemic in 2022, which is a third school year in a row,” she said. “However, many parents, many students think we should require masks.”

McLean still encourages parents to get their children vaccinated against the virus and to put them into pool testing, but neither is mandatory. The district is still cleaning and disinfecting its buildings and getting kids outside whenever the weather cooperates, she said. Students and faculty are asked to self-screen, stay at home and get tested for COVID-19 when they are sick.

Board members all seemed generally in favor of the revised guidelines except board member Steve Hopkins, who voted against the revisions. “I would much rather see a policy where it’s not mandated or make it optional,” he said. “… I can’t support the mandate the way it is now.”

Board Member Cory Seekins said the revisions are an improvement on the previous guidelines and he supports them because they keep the most kids in school. One of his primary concerns has been students’ mental health during prolonged and frequent quarantining, and the universal masking requirement is necessary to keep kids from having to quarantine.

“We have to do what we can to keep the most amount of kids in school,” he said. “So, universal masking in our school system allows every student to take advantage of a quarantine exemption, not just the vaccinated or those who are enrolled in pool testing.”

Members of the public attended the Zoom meeting to discuss COVID-19 procedures during open to the public. A number of people who expressed opposition to existing procedures at the last meeting returned to request that the board drop all mandates. Some members of the public joined the meeting to express their support for the mandates or the revised guidelines and their support for universal masking in schools.

Two Troy Howard Middle School eighth graders spoke at the meeting about the difficulties they have faced wearing masks in school all day and about how it has adversely affected their middle school experience.

“Everyone is talking about us and for us, but no one is talking to us,” Troy Howard eighth grader Gracie said. “I believe masks are doing more harm than good. I often have headaches, I’m constantly yawning at school, I mean, it’s hard to breathe. I feel like a bad student when I need to pull my mask down under my nose to get a breath of air.”

A local social worker with a child in the district spoke about her support for the universal mask mandate and said she was a little nervous about loosening up some of the guidelines. “I hope you don’t confuse the loudest with a majority,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of parental support for following through with the safeguards … I will be terrified if people aren’t with masks.”

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