Maine schools that opted to make masks optional this year are finding out that, when it comes to COVID, you can’t have it all.

With driver Ann Lefebvre at the wheel, Lundyn Beaulieu, 9, peers through the window of a school bus Sept. 1 as students are released from the Albert S. Hall School in Waterville following their first day of school. Waterville Public Schools have universal masking in school buildings. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Regional School Unit 59 in Madison shifted 560 students to remote learning for this week amid a series of outbreaks. North Anson-based RSU 74 did the same last week with students at Carrabec High School.

Both school districts chose to make masks optional at school after an outcry from some parents, despite the county’s low vaccination rate and the summer surge in cases.

But with COVID, and especially with the highly transmissible delta variant, you can’t have it all. You can’t wish urgently for kids to get back to school, then refuse to take the steps necessary to keep them and the wider community safe.

You can’t turn down a safe and effective vaccine, ignore mask and distancing recommendations and turn down regular testing – and then expect everything to be fine.

It should be clear by now that COVID doesn’t care about our politics. Skepticism about vaccines or masks won’t make the coronavirus leave you alone.

Instead, it will look for places where defenses are low, and exploit them if it finds them.

If the goal is to keep kids in school for the sake of their learning and development, then it’s up to schools to make those defenses as solid as possible. Otherwise, cases of COVID, from inside the school and out in the community, will disrupt learning for the foreseeable future.

Even where those defenses are strong – where vaccination rates are high and the schools are following best practices – COVID is finding the weak spots, causing a number of outbreaks and forcing students to quarantine.

But not nearly as many students had their learning disrupted. Schools that made masks mandatory are, of course, better protected from an outbreak if COVID comes into the building – it simply can’t spread as well.

And if cases are found in a school with mandatory masks, fewer students have to quarantine.

The same is true for schools that have started pool testing, in which a group of students is regularly tested as a batch to catch outbreaks in their infancy. If the batch tests positive, the entire group is individually tested, and the students who test negative don’t need to isolate, even if they were a close contact of someone who tested positive.

As of last Friday, only 66 schools had begun their pool-testing programs, though 393 have enrolled. The rest are trying to catch up, after the drop in cases in the early summer lulled them into complacency.

The RSU 74 board of directors was scheduled to meet Wednesday night to re-evaluate the district’s optional mask policy.

They should reverse it, as should every other district that made masks optional, against all good sense, in order to placate parents who wrongly believe that masks don’t work, or that they are harmful to their children’s health.

In many cases, those parents are the same people who refuse to wear masks themselves, or who won’t get the vaccine, or who won’t allow their kids to participate in pooled testing.

In many cases, they are the same people who were angry last year when indoor dining was restricted or high school sports were canceled.

We know enough about this disease now to safely resume a lot of activities. Certainly, we know enough to keep kids safe and learning in school.

But we have to make choices. If we want kids to be in school, then we have to make it a priority, which for some people means having to sacrifice a little.

We can’t have it all. But we can give our students something close to normal school year – as long as everyone is truly willing to do what it takes.


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