BELFAST — Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors voted Feb. 28 to make mask wearing optional for students and staff as of March 7.

Board members also voted to drop contact tracing and eliminate the outdoor mask requirement starting March 1. They voted to make pool testing an option for pre-K students by March 14.

The decision was based on Waldo County’s federally assigned community risk factor falling to the medium category known as yellow. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses three categories to determine the COVID-19 risk factor in communities; green is low, yellow is medium and orange is high.

The CDC strongly recommends that communities in the orange category practice universal masking, while communities in the yellow category are recommended to make masks optional, except for individuals with health issues that put them at a higher risk for serious illness, RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean said.

If community transmission rises and the county is considered to be in the orange classification again, the mask requirement will return, McLean said. The CDC changed the way it calculates a community’s risk factor, to base it on hospitalizations and serious illness instead of positive case counts.

The district has a supply of KN-95 masks for those who request one, McLean said. That type of mask is good for people with health issues who are at a higher risk for severe illness.

Some board members thought there was no point in waiting to drop the universal mask requirement a week after the Feb. 28 board meeting. “I can’t reconcile that in my mind,” board member Ryan Harnden said. “If we’re saying that right now Waldo County is in a position to take this journey, I don’t see why we’re waiting. … I can’t put those two together in my mind.”

Board member Elizabeth Burnett thought dropping masks March 7 was a good compromise between what some board members wanted and the recommendation of school nurses to wait until March 14 to drop masks. She would not have voted in favor of dropping masks altogether starting the day after the meeting. She preferred to wait until the CDC weighed in with its new mask recommendations.

Board member Cory Seekins agreed with Harnden, saying waiting only served the purpose of making people feel more comfortable and less shocked after hearing the policy change.

Despite that opinion, he did not want to harp on the idea of waiting a week for fear of causing a rift in the board over the issue. “I wouldn’t want to divide the board over this matter,” he said. “We’ve worked together tirelessly, at times, over this.”

Seekins has long advocated loosening some COVID-19 protocols, like masking and quarantining, because of the mental health toll some of the requirements have taken on students. He thought survey data collected recently from faculty, students and staff showed less fear compared with data collected last fall.

There were 311 respondents to the survey issued Feb. 17 and most of them were parents. The vast majority of parents in the survey felt comfortable with continuing mandatory masking or making masking optional. About half of staff members in the survey said they felt comfortable with optional masking in the schools. Nearly 80% of respondents said they were comfortable working in the schools or sending their kids to the schools if contact tracing ended.

All board members voted to approve the changes.

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