Maine school districts are proceeding cautiously with their plans for the return to school in the fall as they weigh COVID-19 precautions and the constant evolution of the virus against a commitment to returning to in-person learning five days per week.

With schools already planning to be back full time, superintendents are turning their attention to measures such as masking, vaccination efforts and pooled testing to keep students and staff safe. For many, the biggest debate has become whether to mandate or recommend masks following new guidance from the state and federal governments last week recommending everyone in K-12 schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

“That’s really the big question,” said Regional School Unit 23 Superintendent John Suttie in Old Orchard Beach. “Are we going to mandate mask wearing indoors for all our students or staff or will we recommend it?”

A few places around the country have already started school and in many parts of the U.S. classes resume in mid-August, adding urgency to return-to-school plans that come amid a surge in coronavirus cases. States have already reacted differently to the new guidance. Massachusetts announced Friday it will “strongly recommend” masks for the unvaccinated in schools, while Florida’s governor signed an executive order allowing families to choose whether their child wears a mask to school.

Maine’s decision to follow the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention means local school districts have the authority to adopt their own policies on masking. Some school officials said Friday they’re still waiting to see how things play out over the next few weeks given that most schools don’t start for about another month.

“I don’t see a point in rushing my guidance to the community because these are all moving parts with what the Maine and federal CDC are saying, what the Maine (Department of Education) is saying and what (the Maine Department of Health and Human Services) is saying,” said School Administrative District 15 Superintendent Craig King, whose district includes Gray and New Gloucester. “I think that will shift over the next 10 days, so I don’t want to send out definitive guidelines today and then say, ‘Let’s throw that out and redo it.'”

King is planning to present a final recommendation on COVID protocols to the school board on Aug. 11. The first day of school for staff in SAD 15 is Aug. 30, while students start Sept. 1. In the meantime, King said he is digesting the latest mask guidance and exploring whether the district will participate in the state’s pooled testing program, which allows for regular group COVID-19 testing of students.

Xavier Botana, superintendent of schools in Portland File photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In Portland, the state’s largest district, Superintendent Xavier Botana will be presenting fall return plans to the school board Tuesday. The meeting is scheduled to be at Casco Bay High School, the first in-person school board meeting since the pandemic forced things online in March 2020. All attendees at the meeting will be asked to wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth and to maintain 6 feet of distance from others.

Portland’s plans currently call for universal indoor masking for all students in pre-K through 12th grades and masking for staff whenever they are present with students indoors. Masks will not be required outdoors and will be optional for vaccinated staff in indoor, adult-only settings. Unvaccinated staff will be expected to wear masks at all times indoors.

“If you had asked me this question in June, I probably would have said we would be masking in the elementary grades, including the middle grades, and you probably would be masking if you weren’t vaccinated at the high school,” Botana said. “But with the CDC guidance it became very easy for us to say, ‘We’re just going to go ahead and require masking at all times.’ We’ve done it this summer and it’s worked out fine. I think given where we are and with what we heard from the CDC, it was common sense for us.”

Portland also plans to participate in pooled testing for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, and possibly pre-K, since those students are unable to be vaccinated. The district doesn’t have firm data on vaccination rates among older students who are eligible for vaccination, but Botana said he believes it to be similar to the vaccination rate for young people in Cumberland County, which is just over 64 percent for those ages 12 to 19.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do and we’re looking forward to doing that,” Botana said. “One thing that comes across really clearly from the direction we’re seeing nationally and in the state is that vaccination is the single most effective mitigation strategy. So we will be doing everything we can to get more students vaccinated so we have the best chance of being able to keep schools open in-person.”

As part of a statewide effort to boost vaccination rates in schools, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is also working with school districts to launch free vaccine clinics and plans to start collecting and publicly posting data on student and staff vaccination rates starting in mid-August.

Members of the public will be able to offer feedback on Portland’s fall plans during public comment at the start of Tuesday’s meeting and a public hearing will be held prior to the board’s final consideration of the plan Aug. 17.

“If there are any major issues that arise we will adjust accordingly,” Botana said. “None of these are etched in stone and they will continue to evolve. We also want to stay true to what public health officials are recommending and that’s where we may need to make adjustments along the way.”

In Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, Superintendent Jeff Porter is considering bringing some adjustments to the return-to-school plan approved by the school board in June to its next meeting Aug. 16, including whether to implement pooled testing for students in elementary and middle schools.

Previous parent surveys indicated low interest in pooled testing, but Porter said the state has been encouraging districts to participate and he is wondering whether there might be higher interest if parents had more information. The plans approved by the board in June don’t include any mask requirements and Porter said he is inclined to pass on the state’s latest masking recommendations but not make any mandates.

“If it’s a mandate, obviously we would implement it, but if it’s a recommendation we have generally not required it,” Porter said. “We will pass along the recommendation and as it stands right now the sense is these are recommendations only at this point from the CDC and the DOE. They’re not telling us we have to have students wearing masks or that we have to do distancing.”

In Old Orchard Beach, Suttie is taking a wait-and-see approach. “I think everyone agrees we’re still in a state of flux and slow-playing it is the right way to go,” he said. “We’re not making any final determinations because changes occur often with the virus.”

The first staff day in Old Orchard Beach is Aug. 30, while students return Sept. 2. Suttie said he will be looking at vaccination rates in the community and among students and staff, talking with the school board and gathering community feedback prior to a final decision. He hopes to communicate to families about the plans for masking as well as other COVID protocols in mid-August.

Regardless of what may end up being in place, superintendents said they are looking forward to having students back in-person five days per week.

“Having talked to my teachers and principals, I think everybody is just incredibly excited to have all our kids back in school,” Botana said. “We wished we were in a position where everything is fine and we wouldn’t have to do all the things we need to do, but I think universally for us it’s an easy trade-off to wear a mask, do testing and do additional cleaning to be able to get kids in school five days per week full time.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: