MADISON — As school officials prepare to welcome back nearly 575 students districtwide next month, the decision on whether or not to mask students this fall will be a choice left to parents, in an effort to “take the politics” out of the discussion.

In her explanation to the school board Monday, Maine School Administrative District 59 Superintendent Bonnie Levesque said that masking in schools has been “highly recommended” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “but there’s been a lot of politics involved” in the decision. The board unanimously approved the masking recommendation on Monday.

“We felt as a team that if we could take the politics out of it by giving the parents the option we felt we’d have more success getting kids back when school starts,” Levesque said. But she added, “I won’t lie, science says it’s safer to wear the mask.”

Students in kindergarten through grade nine are slated to return Wednesday, Sept. 1, while the remainder of students returns the next day.

Masking on Madison school buses and vans will be mandatory for students and staff members.

The decision was made with the help of the district’s administrative team after spending weeks talking to other superintendents in the region and the commissioner at the Maine Department of Education. Levesque said that “my administrative team felt it should be the parent’s choice, but the CDC strongly recommends that we mask because they feel that universal masking will protect all kids.”

Following the approval from the seven-member school board, Levesque sent a letter to the community outlining changes to COVID-19 safety measures since the end of the previous school year.

The decision comes as schools nationwide grapple with COVID-19 safety protocols during a time when children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccinations. Health experts are recommending masks in areas where the virus is spreading, saying that the COVID-19 surge is now driven by the more contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has recommended that K-12 schools adopt universal masking regardless of pupils’ vaccination status.

In her recommendation, Levesque added that a recent meeting with other school officials and Maine CDC’s Director Dr. Nirav Shah centered on the delta variant of the virus and why it “poses such a significant risk.”

“He (confirmed) the importance of following the federal CDC guidance, including masking indoors, and indicated that the need to mask is based on the new variant and is subject to change as things improve,” Levesque said.

One parent, who declined to be identified when asked, spoke in support of this recommendation Monday.

“I appreciate that you’re giving us the option instead of just mandating it,” said the parent. “I know our kids suffered personally last year. I appreciate not just going with what everybody else is doing and actually taking into account what everybody is saying.”

Resuming in-person instruction also eliminates a hybrid or remote-learning alternative, Levesque said. Some parents raised questions about this and wondered what the expectations are for students sent home to quarantine, and how absences will be determined.

Levesque didn’t have definitive answers, she said, but she surmised that students would likely be given academic assignments they can complete at home and that they’ll have the opportunity to virtually sign in to lessons via Zoom.

Another parent asked about the masking policy for teachers. Levesque said that they will follow the same guidelines as students.

As for pooled testing, she added that Madison will not participate in these programs. “A lot of schools in the Kennebec Valley region, including us, are opting not to do that,” Levesque said. “It’s a lot of work, and the reliability is not great.”

The board will continue to discuss the matter at least monthly, the superintendent said, making changes based on “what happens in Augusta.”

On Tuesday, Maine reported 375 new cases of COVID-19 over a three-day period, including three additional deaths. Somerset remains one of 15 counties with either substantial or high levels of transmission, as identified by the U.S. CDC. According to the CDC, all people should be wearing masks in public indoor settings. While 61.5% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, the vaccinated population in Somerset County remains the lowest in Maine, at 55.8%.

Madison’s decision and public-meeting rollout stands in contrast to neighboring Skowhegan, where parents last week angrily shouted and cursed at school board members over the plan to require masking for students for at least the first month of school.

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