As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state, the Regional School Unit 1 board of directors on Monday will review its previous decision to “strongly recommend,” but not require, face masks to be worn indoors.

In late June, when COVID-19 cases were falling as vaccination rates rose, the school board voted 5-2 to not require masks indoors. When the board made the call on June 28, Maine’s 7-day new case average stood at 20, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Sunday, the state’s 7-day new case average had jumped to 173.5.

“We were following, at that point, CDC guidelines which was a strong recommendation that unvaccinated people mask, but there was no requirement to mask,” said RSU 1 School Board Chair Stephen August. “We felt it was appropriate to revisit that decision and see where we are.”

RSU 1 serves Bath, Arrowsic, Phippsburg and Woolwich.

August acknowledged the statewide COVID-19 case count has increased throughout July and August, but said Sagadahoc County has maintained a relatively low COVID-19 positivity rate.

Over the past 14 days, the Maine CDC reported 11 new positive tests out of 789 tests total, creating a 1.4% positivity rate, the lowest in the state.

Since the pandemic reached Maine in March 2020, 1,519 people total in Sagadahoc County have tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 had died as of Saturday, according to data from the Maine CDC. Statewide, 72,521 Mainers have tested positive since March 2020 and 904 have died, as of Saturday.

According to Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long, “Maine CDC encourages school administrators throughout Maine to use the authority provided to them by Maine law to require universal mask use in schools, as recommended by the U.S. CDC.”

Long said that recommendation applies to schools in all counties in Maine.

Face masks have played a key role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 because the disease spreads through the respiratory droplets an infected person releases when they cough, sneeze, speak or breathe. Wearing a face mask contains the droplets people release, preventing them from becoming airborne and infecting others, according to the CDC.

In addition to taking scientific data into account, August said he expects the board’s upcoming debate could stir up an emotional response from the district’s families.

“Parents have very strong opinions on this both ways,” said August. “This morning I received two emails from parents who have well thought arguments but, in the end, are diametrically opposed.”

RSU 1 parent Miriam Johnson submitted a statement to the school board urging them to heed the Maine CDC’s universal masking recommendation to prevent students and staff from spreading and contracting COVID-19.

“Given the fact that students under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, they are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant,” said Johnson. “I’m hopeful that this will be a temporary measure while community transmission remains high and kids under 12 remain unvaccinated. In the meantime, my family will be relying on a universal masking policy to keep our schools open and keep our kids safe.”

RSU 1 parent Amy Eisenbach argued requiring students to wear masks is “unnecessary” because she believes most teachers are vaccinated and “children who are exposed and those who test positive show mild symptoms or none at all.”

“This mask wearing and physical distance requirement is creating a bigger mental health issue, this in turn will be the next pandemic.” said Eisenbach. “The mask wearing and excessive hand sanitizing exposure is weakening their immune system.”

August said he didn’t know if the district has asked students how they feel about wearing masks in school, but said students generally complied with the district’s mandatory masking policy last year.

“If asked to wear a mask and maintain distance, sometimes students needed reminders, but when asked to put a mask on or maintain distance, the students were great,” said August. “They understood the need.”

In addition to universal masking, Long said the COVID-19 vaccine “remains the best tool to prevent hospitalization and death with COVID-19,” for those eligible to receive it. Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for people 12 and older.

“Vaccination also is effective in reducing the risk of potential transmission of all variants of the virus,” said Long.

Although 73% of eligible Sagadahoc County residents are vaccinated, only about 46% of Sagadahoc County children ages 12-15 have received a second dose, while 55% of children ages 16-19 are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

RSU 1 Administrative Assistant Veda Ferris said she didn’t know what percentage of district students and staff are vaccinated because, “From what I understand from our nurses, we’re not allowed to ask.”

The Maine Department of Education did not return requests for comment Thursday or Friday regarding if schools can ask staff and students whether they’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition to universal masking, the CDC’s latest guidance also stressed “students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.”

Although RSU 1’s masking decision may change, the district is committed to offering full-time in-person instruction rather than the hybrid model schools adopted during the last academic year, according to a letter Superintendent Patrick Manuel sent to families earlier this month.

“The district is not providing a hybrid model, but is offering a remote option,” Manuel’s letter reads. “The district recognizes that there are some students who are not able to access in-person learning due to compromising medical conditions. The full remote option is only available for students who are determined to be medically unable to attend school in person.”

The meeting to review masking and other COVID-19 guidelines will take place at 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 16. The meeting will be held in-person at the new Morse High School, but can also be watched online using the link on the district’s website.

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