OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Students are still wearing masks at Old Orchard Beach High School and in most schools across Maine. But many are looking forward to the day when masking will be optional instead of required.

And that day may not be far off.

As the omicron wave subsides, some states are rescinding school mask mandates or indicating that they are likely to do so soon, including Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Oregon and California.

“Omicron is coming down, things are getting safer, so I do believe it’s time for masking to be optional,” Emily Tucker, a 17-year-old Old Orchard Beach senior, said Tuesday afternoon during a break in her honors anatomy and physiology class. “I do feel like it would be nice to finish out the year with school events back to normal.”

School masking mandates in other states are not being lifted immediately, but parents, students and school staff are being told when to expect they will expire or likely end. Vermont and Connecticut have set tentative dates of Feb. 28 for when school mask mandates could end, with public comments by governors of both states indicating it’s likely to happen. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker hinted that Feb. 28 may be the end of the school mask mandate in Massachusetts as well, according to a report on public radio.

Maine does not have a statewide school mask mandate, but most schools have imposed local mandates based on Maine’s official  guidelines recommending masking in all indoor places in school, other than when eating and drinking.


Maine officials have not indicated that advice will change any time soon. A spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention did not directly answer a question about whether officials are planning to revise the mask guidance.

“Maine CDC will continue to provide public health guidance to local school administrators to help them determine how they can best continue to provide in-person instruction,” Robert Long said in an email. “Today, that guidance continues to align with the U.S. CDC recommendation that students and staff wear masks indoors to limit potential spread of COVID-19.”

Students work independently during an anatomy and physiology class at Old Orchard Beach High School on Tuesday. Left to right are Laci Hall, Eldon Beaudoin and Christopher Brichetto, all seniors. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The omicron wave began in some states sooner than others, but hospitalizations and the rate of positive tests are declining steadily in Maine as well as in most states. While not affecting schools, the Portland City Council voted Monday night to rescind its indoor mask mandate, effective in 10 days, based on the expectation that conditions will continue to improve.

John Suttie, Old Orchard Beach superintendent, said Tuesday that informal conversations have begun between superintendents and state officials about mask mandates, but those discussions are still in the very early stages.

“We have reached out to pose the question to the (Maine) CDC regarding what an exit strategy will look like,” Suttie said. “We’re at the brainstorming stage right now.”

School districts that have mask mandates would likely be reluctant to drop them without a change in state guidance. Although schools have local control over whether to impose mandates, school districts that choose to make masking optional under the current state guidelines are recommended to take additional steps to contain outbreaks, including quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19.


Most schools in Maine have followed the state’s advice on mask mandates, although there is no official count.

So far, the U.S. CDC has not changed its recommendation that masks be worn in schools. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated that advice in a media briefing Monday, but she also said that could change depending on pandemic conditions.

Alexander Hodgkins, left, and Emily Tucker, both seniors at Old Orchard Beach High School, attend an anatomy and physiology class Tuesday. Tucker said, “I do feel like it would be nice to finish out the year with school events back to normal.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“At some point when the science and the data warrants, of course, our hope is that that’s no longer the recommendation,” Psaki said.

Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General during the Trump administration, warned in a tweet on Tuesday against “prematurely” ending masking restrictions. “Exit the highway early, (the) trip takes longer,” Adams said.


At Old Orchard Beach High, Tucker and three of her classmates all agreed that masks should soon be optional.


“It is time. We are turning the corner,” said Kellen Zecchinelli, a 17-year-old senior. “Vaccine rates are going up. School in general is safer.”

Masking and COVID-19 rules have affected all school-related activities, including sports. Tucker plays hockey, and she said masks make hockey practice and games uncomfortable and difficult.

Alexander Hodgkins, a 17-year-old senior, said he chose not to play basketball this winter because he didn’t want to wear a mask while playing. And the seniors said they are trying to rescue the winter formal dance, which normally happens in March but is slated to be canceled this year. If masking becomes optional, it’s possible the dance could be saved, they said.

Science teacher Kellie Beres said she’s not sure about when to lift restrictions. She said students and teachers have had to cope without nonverbal cues that are obscured when everyone’s masked, such as by gesturing more, using visuals, video and email more, and even raising eyebrows to indicate certain expressions.

Teacher Kellie Beres, left, works with Jossolyn Riccardo, a junior at Old Orchard Beach High School, during an anatomy and physiology class Tuesday. “A lot of students don’t even know what I look like without my mask,” Beres said.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“A lot of students don’t even know what I look like without my mask,” said Beres, who started working at Old Orchard Beach High in 2020-21, the first full year after the pandemic began.

Some parents also are saying it’s time to revisit mask mandates in school.


“We cannot mask in perpetuity,” said Winnie Lee of Scarborough, the mother of two elementary-age girls. “The pandemic has changed. Families should have a mask choice.”

Kate Hopkins of South Portland, whose fifth-grade daughter attends Waynflete, said attitudes changed once elementary schoolchildren gained access to the vaccine last fall. “As parents, we felt if we went out and kids got vaccinated, the masks would be able to come off.”

“It’s frustrating our kids still have to mask during the day,” Hopkins said. “Why are we still doing this?”

The discussions about mask mandates are growing even as the omicron variant, while declining, is still widespread in Maine.

Maine officials reported 12 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday and said another federal medical team is headed to the state despite signs indicating pandemic conditions are easing.

The number of patients hospitalized in Maine dipped to 319 Tuesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That is down from 327 on Monday, which was 25 percent below the peak of 436 patients with COVID-19 that was reported on Jan. 13.


The number of patients in intensive care declined to 75 on Tuesday, a 44 percent drop from the peak of 133 ICU patients on Dec. 19.


Gov. Janet Mills announced Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved her request for federal COVID-19 Surge Response Teams to support medical staff at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Beginning Feb. 18, two U.S. Department of Defense teams each consisting of 20 military medical personnel – including physicians, nurses, and respiratory technicians – will supplement staff at EMMC to provide care for those with COVID-19 and other serious medical issues, the governor’s announcement said. The teams will provide assistance through mid-March.

“While I am encouraged by the recent reduction in hospitalizations, the pandemic continues to cause serious illness requiring critical care that strains our health care workers,” Mills said in the statement.

“This virus is putting pressure on staffing and adding difficulty to the already challenging process of placing patients who are in need of behavioral health, skilled nursing, or other support after discharge,” said Rand O’Leary, president of EMMC.


The new federal personnel will join members of the Maine Army National Guard deployed in non-clinical roles in hospitals across the state. The deployment of Guard members to hospitals is scheduled through Feb. 25.

FEMA also has sent Surge Response Teams to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston through March 2 and has agreed to a 30-day extension through Feb. 25 of the federal ambulance teams supporting Maine hospitals. Additional ambulance teams are being sent to help Cary Medical Center in Caribou and other hospitals in Aroostook County.

The Maine CDC added 1,391 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to the state’s pandemic total on Tuesday, although daily case counts do not reflect the state’s actual infection rate because of a massive backlog of positive tests and other reasons that skew results, such as the proliferation of at-home tests.

1,816 DEATHS

Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 182,401 cases of COVID-19, and 1,816 deaths.

Meanwhile, the average number of positive tests submitted each weekday to the Maine CDC declined last week for the third week in a row. The average number of positive tests from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4 was 1,404. That’s down from 2,194 the previous week.

The daily average of positive tests peaked at 3,186 during the week of Jan. 10-14, with a record 3,759 positive tests submitted to the state on Jan. 12.

Not all positive tests sent to the Maine CDC end up being confirmed cases, in part because some individuals get retested after being infected. But Maine is dealing with a backlog of more than 58,000 positive tests that have yet to be processed, leading to delays in confirmed tests that are added to the official count.

Wastewater testing, which is now being done in several communities across Maine, including Portland, Belfast, Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and Presque Isle, is showing substantial declines in prevalence of the coronavirus.

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