This week, almost two years to the day that we shut our doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a mask at Portland Public Schools became optional for our staff and students. This is a milestone moment for us, so I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight this and other changes in our health and safety protocols, acknowledge our staff, students and families for their patience and cooperation in helping us get to this point, and look ahead.

Xavier Botana is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]

We feel safe going to optional masking at this point in time due to our data showing continued low cases district-wide, and guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and the Maine Department of Education, as well as our district medical advisers.

March 9 was the date the state set for recommending masks in schools be optional. We waited until this week to transition to optional masking in our district.

We moved more cautiously and deliberately to ensure that we considered all health and safety factors in making this big change. We are still requiring masks in some instances. Staff and students who test positive will be required to wear a mask if they return to school before their 10th day of quarantine.

“Masking optional” means that staff and students can choose whether to wear masks or not. I want to stress that anyone who wants to continue to wear a mask at the Portland Public Schools should do so. It’s very important that everyone in our community be respectful of the personal choices that staff and students make when it comes to wearing a mask.

We encourage students and staff who have health issues, or have someone in their immediate households who has health issues, to consult with their doctors to seek guidance about wearing masks. We are able to help students obtain masks that are recommended by their healthcare provider.

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In addition to optional masking, we have made some changes to our other COVID precautions. We have eliminated limits on indoor gatherings, so more school events can be held indoors instead of outdoors. We’re allowing for increased visitor access. Volunteers must continue to be vaccinated, but masking for them will be optional, too. We’ve lifted our restrictions on classroom and lunchroom configurations. We will also be turning water fountains back on as soon as we can complete all of the required testing. See bit.ly/3w0Mzqh for more details.

We will continue our pooled testing, hygiene and symptom checks and will keep on encouraging vaccination. All of these measures remain key tools that will allow us to continue to keep our schools safe. We will monitor federal CDC COVID-19 Community Levels, state wastewater testing and our pooled testing to determine if we need to make any district-wide or school-specific changes to our mitigation strategies. Those could include returning to requiring masking in a specific school or districtwide.

I am deeply grateful to everyone – staff, students and families – for all they have done to adhere to these and other protocols over the past two years. It has not been easy, but everyone’s collective efforts have helped keep our schools open.

Is this pandemic nearing an end? While the news is encouraging, COVID-19 has thrown us curve balls before. We celebrate this milestone, but we continue to exercise caution.

However, we have reason to hope. Daylight savings has begun, spring is around the corner and we are able to see the smiles of students in our classrooms for the first time in two years.

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