Portland’s public schools plan to keep their mandatory indoor masking policy despite new state guidance that recommends schools make masking optional starting next week.

The administration of Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that the state’s school masking recommendation will transition from mandatory to optional on March 9. While many districts have taken the new guidance as a green light to make masking optional,  the largest district in the state is taking a more cautious approach.

The Portland school district plans to continue requiring masks at least until warmer weather allows students, faculty, and staff to spend more time outdoors and until the district has a period of stable low cases, Tess Nacelewicz, communication coordinator for Portland Public Schools, told the Press Herald Thursday afternoon.

Nacelewicz declined to clarify what specific parameters district leadership is using to define “low” cases and what duration of time would signify stability.

Portland Public Schools recorded 19 positive COVID-19 cases across the district for the week of Feb. 14 to 18 – the week before break and the last full week of data – according to Emily Figdor, who chairs the Board of Education. The district serves 6,986 students, according to data from the Maine Department of Education.

COVID cases are trending down, Superintendent Xavier Botana said at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night.


“There are no discernible patterns that would give us cause for concern at this time,” he said.

Despite indications that there is minimal COVID circulating in the Portland Public Schools community and that instances of COVID cases are decreasing, Botana is taking a wary approach to optional masking.

“I am like everyone else anxious to put COVID behind us; however, I do not want to rush to undo our mitigation practices that have allowed us to run schools safely all year,” he said.

District leaders also are looking at COVID indicators beyond the school system. “We want the numbers in our schools but also the county to have stability for a few weeks,” said Figdor.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday shifted its classification of Cumberland County from an area of high risk to medium risk based on a combination of factors, including hospital burden and case counts. That means that under federal guidelines as well as state guidelines, Cumberland County schools are recommended to go mask-optional within the week. The entire state of Maine was classified by the U.S. CDC as having a medium level of risk  as of Thursday.

While the Portland school district is retaining its mandatory indoor masking policy, other districts around the state are speeding toward a mask-optional future.


School districts such as Chelsea and Vassalboro have already made masks optional, and Yarmouth and Lewiston, the state’s second largest school district, are among many more that have decided to or are considering making masks optional next week.

Back in Portland, district leadership may be united on masking policy, but Portland High School students are not.

Freshman Lex Stults said masks are a pain, especially during gym, and it’s frustrating that other school mask mandates are being lifted but Portland High School’s is not.

Other students, however, said they support a continued mask mandate.

Continuing the mandatory masking policy is good for safety reasons, especially for students with younger siblings at home who can’t be vaccinated for COVID, said Christina, a 10th-grade student who provided only her first name. Christina has three siblings at home — ages 9, 7 and 2. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any COVID vaccine for children under 5 years of age and kids under 12 are not eligible for a booster shot.

Some students are also concerned that without masks, COVID cases will rise.


“If we get rid of masks, COVID cases go up,” said Baleria, a ninth-grader who provided only her first name when interviewed outside Portland High School.

Board chair Figdor is hearing from parents and staff some of the the same opinions on masking expressed by the students.

Figdor wasn’t hearing much from parents on masking policy until new guidance came out from the federal government last Friday and then from the state government on Wednesday, she said.

“Now I’m hearing a lot,” she said.

“We have some families and staff urging us to revoke the mask mandate right away,” said Figdor. “We have others who are asking us to proceed with caution and ask us to keep the mandate in place.”

Figdor said that input is important, but the board will continue to take a cautious approach and take advice from a team of two medical professionals who work for the district – Tina Veilleux, a nurse for Portland Public Schools, and Dr. Gita Rao, clinical director of Greater Portland Health’s school-based health centers.


“I am optimistic that we will get to a place soon where masks won’t be required for everyone, but we’re not there yet,”

While the state’s guidelines for schools are changing, the Maine CDC continues to recommend universal masking in medical facilities, long-term care facilities and other congregate living facilities as an added layer of protection for vulnerable populations in those settings. The Maine CDC also recommends that masks be worn by people completing their isolation and quarantine periods after being infected or exposed.

Maine was the only state in New England that had not previously set a date for removing an indoor mask mandate or recommending when masking can become optional in schools. Governors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut have either already made masking optional in schools or set a date in the near future for masks to become optional.

Unlike some other states, Maine does not mandate a policy for schools. But most schools have followed its recommendation to impose mask mandates.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals increased slightly to 163 on Thursday, the third day in a row that hospitalizations have remained stable after dropping steadily for several weeks.

Hospitalizations increased from 162 on Wednesday and 158 on Tuesday. But the number of patients remains 63 percent below the peak of 436 hospitalized patients on Jan. 13.

Of the people hospitalized Thursday, 41 were in intensive care and 11 were on ventilators. The number of critically ill patients also has been relatively stable this week after a period of steady decline.

No additional COVID-19 deaths were reported Thursday, leaving Maine’s pandemic death toll unchanged at 2,078.

The state added 1,034 new COVID-19 cases to Maine’s official count on Thursday. Those cases do not represent new infections, however, because the state is still working to process positive tests submitted weeks ago during the height of the omicron surge.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story