HALLOWELL —  Tensions flared at Regional School Unit 2’s school board meeting Thursday night with a large number of people attending online and in person to share their opinion about the district’s plan to follow the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s recommendation to require masks indoors.

Jon Hamann, chairperson of the RSU 2 school board, said there was a “misconception” the discussion Thursday night was to debate the mask requirement. The intent, he said, was to review the original motion on the agenda, which was to follow CDC guidelines for the coronavirus response as the board voted to do in June.

Ahead of Thursday night’s meeting, the school district asked families to complete a survey, to which RSU 2 Superintendent Tonya Arnold said about 270 people responded. She said about 75% of respondents were in favor of following CDC guidelines.

At the start of the meeting, Russ Hughes, a board member who represents Richmond, moved to amend the original motion to make mask use in RSU 2 schools optional, unless Gov. Janet Mills were to call a state of emergency.

After much deliberation, including about an hour of public comment and another hour of board discussion, the motion failed by a 7-5 margin. Joining Hughes in voting for the amendment were Jeff Bickford, Jon Lambert, Kathryn Marseglia and Mark Pearson. Opposing it were Leanne Burnham, Jonathan Hamann, Chris Asch, Donna Seppy, Linda Leet, Jay Brown and Dawn Gallagher.

At least 25 people in the audience jumped to have their voice heard — both for and against a mask mandate — with many speaking over Hamann and not complying with his request to keep their speaking time limited to two minutes. Hamann told one person who was attending in person he would have them removed if they did not comply with the rules, and one online participant that they would be kicked off the Zoom feed after they kept speaking over those talking.

“This is about whether or not the school board follows guidance from the CDC,” Hamann said. “We are not deciding about people’s freedom.”

Some participants said it should be a “family choice,” compared mask use to “being muzzled,” said how there is “no data” to back up masks and argued mask use hinders a student’s learning. But according to the CDC, studies have shown masks reduce the spread of germs from person to person.

One member of the audience accused the school board of “not knowing the community” or the individuals within it. Leet, who represents Farmingdale and has served on the board for 37 years, was upset by the comment. After the vote to follow CDC guidelines in requiring masks, she left for the remainder of the meeting.

Leet said she has known the community members, including those who spoke Thursday night, since they were “little kids.”

“I am very involved,” she said. “I asked a group of boys in my neighborhood how they felt about masks and they said, ‘Ms. Leet, I just want to go back to school,’ They just want to see their friends, they want to play.”

Leet said she spoke with some teachers who didn’t want to put up with fighting between students because one person is forced to wear a mask while the other isn’t if there was no mask mandate in the district.

“Teachers need to be able to teach your kids, first and foremost. We need to be concerned about the whole school,” she said. “Our concerns are the kids and staff and needed you to hear, I do care, we do care, and we prioritize health and safety.”

Other people tried to undermine the “low death” rate in children under the age of 17 if they contract COVID-19. But Arnold reminded the audience of the overall and the long-term impact of the virus and said “the deaths might be low, but to be hospitalized, and without insurance, can be detrimental.”

“I will say, I have a child with asthma and if something happens to my child because the school isn’t following guidelines, I’m going to be upset,” said parent Aimee Campbell O’Connor, who added the school board is “supposed to represent the school from the school’s perspective.”

Asch, who represents Hallowell, said voting against mask wearing would require him to ignore experts “who spend their time looking for the best way to move forward.” To those who don’t think national guidelines apply to Maine and RSU 2, he said, they should consider the requests from local doctors urging school districts to follow CDC recommendations.

“We all hate masks, this is something we all share, but we also agree we don’t want to go back to the hybrid, two days on, two days off,” Myers Asch said. “It’s hard on teachers, hard on parents, juggling the quarantine this week, quarantine next week, it’s difficult.

“We want them to be in class full time — to me, that’s the priority,” he added. “In order to get them to school fulltime and be there as much as possible, we should do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

His daughter Miriam Asch, who will be a ninth grader at Hall-Dale High School this school year, spoke at the meeting. She gave her perspective as a student who wore a mask in the classroom all of last year.

“COVID-19 is very dangerous right now even with vaccinated people,” Miriam Asch said. “Children can still learn, socialize and have fun in masks. All last year we had to wear masks and kids were still learning. Especially since everyone is going to be in school five days a week, it’s important we wear one to be protected.”

In order to bring students back to school in person, five days a week, Arnold said the mask requirement is one step to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among the young students. Students younger than age 12 cannot be vaccinated against the coronavirus at this point, according to the CDC.

Other steps that can be taken include mask wearing on school buses, social distancing, pool testing and getting vaccinated when possible. The district opted against pool testing in the spring; it had surveyed community members about whether RSU 2 should take part and received a 10% positive feedback rate in the spring. A more recent survey, Arnold said, received a 50% positive feedback rate.

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