SKOWHEGAN — As the Skowhegan-based school board held a discussion Thursday night to consider masking requirements for students and staff when they return to school next month, parents in the audience pushed back, speaking over each other and the board, yelling and shouting profanities.

An overwhelming majority of the crowd, which included around 30 parents, spoke over the superintendent and board members as they tried to explain the recent coronavirus data specific to their region.

“I’m not sure why we’re focused on something that isn’t deadly; it seems ridiculous, we’re an embarrassment to be Americans,” one parent said.

Another chimed in, comparing mask-wearing in schools to child abuse.

Several times, when the superintendent or board members attempted to share their thoughts they were shouted over and told that their reasons for considering the data provided were “(expletive) excuses.”

Shortly after the meeting began, an officer from the Skowhegan Police Department arrived to watch over the proceedings.

These tense moments played out Thursday as parents in School Administrative District 54 called on the school board to drop masking requirements for students when they return to school on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Instead, the majority opted to support a recommendation backed by health experts and the latest science and data, which calls for everyone, including those who have been vaccinated, to wear a mask for at least the first few weeks of school. The decision will be reviewed at the second meeting in October and will continue to be reassessed by the board on a monthly basis.

The tense meeting in Skowhegan comes amid similar situations across the country, as schools everywhere grapple with COVID-19 safety protocols in a time when vaccinations are not yet ready for children age 12 and under and health experts are recommending masks in situations where the virus is surging. Experts say the COVID-19 surge is being caused by the more contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has recommended K-12 schools adopt universal masking regardless of vaccination status.

Parents in Skowhegan cited the declining mental health of their children caused by masking in schools in their pleas to the board to drop the requirement. One said that through her line of work, where she provides mental health services to schools in the area, she has learned firsthand from students that they do not like wearing masks because they are uncomfortable, make it difficult to breathe and feel like they’re being silenced.

“We have several schools surrounding us returning with no masks,” said Jacqueline Wolinski. “It is inappropriate for us as adults to put masks over our kids and silence them, especially when other districts are taking measures to make sure our kids can hear us and see our faces.”

Another added that their child has come home with a bloody nose and blistered caused by masking all day; others said that they didn’t think their child had been offered enough masking breaks during the school day.

Parents in the audience then asked for a survey to be sent home for their feedback on sending their children to school in masks, but the superintendent did not entertain this idea.

Jon Moody, superintendent of School Administrative District 54 is seen in August 2020. On Thursday, parents attending a school board meeting expressed their disfavor with Moody’s decision to begin the school year with a mask mandate for all, regardless of vaccine status. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

“I can’t have a public opinion survey dictate the safety and well being of our students,” SAD 54 Superintendent Jon Moody said. “It has to be what the experts say.”

Those experts include both the federal and state Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maine Department of Education.

All 2,400 students districtwide are slated to return back to full-time, in-person learning next month. SAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

In his recommendation, Moody said that following guidance and evidence that’s been reviewed from the district and the “unanimous agreement” of building administrators, “I am going to recommend we begin school having everyone mask, even those individuals who have been vaccinated.”

“We view this as a temporary necessary move based on the delta variant and its potential impacts to schools,” Moody said in his recommendation letter.

The decision on masking in schools has been left up to individual school districts this year. SAD 54 administrators considered several metrics — including local positivity rates, county designation, county vaccination rate, availability of immunizations for students pre-K through grade eight, and adjustments made to federal and state recommendations — to arrive at their recommendations.

To date, Somerset remains the county with the lowest vaccinated population statewide, at 55%. Statewide, that number is just above 61%.

Parents pushed back on these statistics Thursday night, saying that more children die annually from car crashes. One parent questioned whether administrators had considered the death rates among those under 18 from complications from COVID-19, saying “it just seems silly that we’re going to go ahead and put a piece of cloth over our faces for one death.”

“One child is too much,” Moody said.

Lynda Quinn, the school board chairperson, added that “only one child” is an unacceptable metric to go by.

“What if it was your child? Then you’re going to be here hollering at us again because we didn’t support masking,” Quinn said.

By the end of the meeting, the majority of the board sided with Moody’s science-based recommendation; those opposed were Alicia Boulette, Gerry Redlevske, Jean Franklin, Daniel Frey and Karen Smith. Mark Bedard, Jeannie Conley, Derek Ellis, Haley Fleming, Brandy Morgan, Jennifer Poirier and Gary Sinclair were not present.

Frey falsely suggested that mask mandates were unconstitutional in his defense for voting “no,” adding that the decision should be left up to parents. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, ruled that directives such as mask mandates do not violate constitutional rights, highlighting that individual liberty does not take precedence over the welfare of the public in matters of public health .

Meanwhile, the state reported 215 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, marking the third consecutive day of at least 200 cases as the highly-transmissible delta variant continues to spread. Somerset County is one of 15 in Maine that the US CDC has defined as an area of high or substantial transmission, where masks are recommended indoors regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

 


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