OAKLAND — In front of more than 70 people, Tabitha Carasiti stood at the microphone Wednesday night to implore the Regional School Unit 18 board of directors to stop concentrating on certain data points and instead think of the children.

Carasiti of Oakland told board members she has a daughter who is a high school junior and a son in seventh grade. She said her son found last year he could not breathe while wearing a protective mask and, instead, received a doctor’s note to wear a face shield.

“It’s insane what we are doing to our kids,” Carasiti said.

Later, Dr. Laurie Nelson, a parent to three children and physician in Augusta, rose to warn everyone the more-contagious delta variant of COVID-19 is rapidly filling hospital beds.

“The delta is a whole new thing. This is a new virus — 10 times more infectious,” said Nelson, wearing a white lab coat and speaking through her face mask. “And these masks work.”

“It’s already proven masks don’t work!” shouted a man standing near the back of the room.


Such tense scenes unfolded at Messalonskee Middle School’s cafeteria as the RSU 18 board ultimately voted unanimously to adopt Superintendent Carl Gartley’s reopening plan for schools in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

Under Gartley’s plan, students would again be required to wear face masks inside school buildings so students can attend classes in person five days a week, although masks will be not be required outdoors.

Gartley said COVID-19 pandemic protocols would be on every board meeting agenda going forward, so practices, such as the mask mandate, could be reevaluated every two weeks as conditions change and new data are available.

The RSU 18 meeting Wednesday night followed a number of meetings across the region, as some districts have adopted similar approaches to masking, while others are leaving the decision to parents.

New this year, Gartley said, is a benefit to the mask requirement in the event a COVID-19 case is identified: Close contacts will no longer be required to quarantine, although the affected student will. That provides a greater chance whole classrooms or schools will not need to quarantine and switch to remote learning.

Although the nine-member RSU 18 board was unanimous in its approval of Gartley’s reopening plan, one board member, Andrew Cook of Rome, chose to abstain from the vote. Afterward, Cook said in a brief interview he felt conflicted about the mask issue.


“I don’t have enough information,” Cook said. “I’m sympathetic to a lot of what I heard.”

That discussion Wednesday night lasted more than an hour as parents, students and teachers addressed the board, with some praising the school’s pandemic protocols and others repeatedly questioning the science and data on COVID-19, and whether masks are effective. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says studies prove properly worn masks have reduced new infections).

At the start of the meeting, Cook made a motion not to hear any public comment, saying comments at a prior board meeting were uncivil and “out of control.”

“Too bad!” One parent shouted back.

Cook’s motion did not win support and the meeting proceeded, with Gartley explaining his reopening plan and asking that public comments afterward be civil and limited to two minutes.

There will be no remote learning option this year happening year because it is not feasible for school staff members, Gartley said, and his goal is to keep students in school for in-person instruction, even as the pandemic continues.


Gartley noted this year’s plan will continue with key practices seen last year: Increased cleaning and focus on student and staff member hygiene, physical distancing as much as possible and getting outside for fresh air — without masks — as often as possible.

Gartley said he has wrestled with the key question of whether to require students and staff members to wear masks indoors and on school buses. He said he has changed his opinion over the past few weeks.

The more-contagious delta variant is prompting a surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Maine and across the country. Gartley said he had consulted school staff members, nurses and area pediatricians, while constantly reviewing COVID-19 data, such as the positivity rate, active cases in Kennebec County and the state, hospitalizations, vaccination rates and more.

A month ago, Gartley said, he was leaning toward a policy that would have allowed parents to decide if their children would wear masks at school, but the rapid surge caused by the delta variant has changed his thinking.

Gartley said he wants to get to a point where parents decide if their children wear masks at school, but he felt the current data points toward the need to start the 2021-22 academic year cautiously to keep students and staff members safe.

“The mask requirement will be reevaluated locally on a regular basis,” he said, adding it will be the board’s agenda as it meets about every two weeks. “I’m telling you, this is what we have to do to keep kids in school to start the year.


“I need to keep kids in schools, and I just feel this is the best way to do it. I know some people are mad, upset with this decision. Some are happy with this decision. Neither one of you are wrong, neither one is right.”

In fact, several people who addressed the board applauded the district’s handling of the pandemic during the past school year. RSU 18 was among the few school districts in the region to have students in school five days a week, with a mask mandate, even as other schools tried a hybrid model with some days in person and some remote.

A woman from Sidney who said she works at the high school asked what would happen to a student who refused to wear a protective mask.

Gartley said because masks would be required, “we’d follow the normal discipline process.” The noncompliant student could be removed from school, Gartley said, and subject to a remote learning option that would not involve regular teacher interaction.

It is ultimately up to parents, he said. to make sure their children are wearing masks at school.

Gartley said if parents have concerns and want to talk with him about options, he is open to listening.


Pressed by some parents about the data he is using and what metrics would trigger a change in the mask policy, Gartley could not point to a specific benchmark, but said he would continue reviewing key data points for Kennebec County and the state.

Several parents rose to question the science of whether masks work and ask that board members consider the emotional and psychological toll masks take on children when they have to wear them during the school day.

A man who addressed the board falsely suggested COVID-19 “presents almost no risk to children at all,” an overstatement of studies showing children generally get less sick than adults, although children have been hospitalized and have died from the virus.

The man also warned the board that “parents will start to rally together” if they are not allowed a choice over masking, and suggested parents would pull their children from school. He then asked, “How do you teach a classroom with empty seats?”

Tiffany Arsenault, a parent from China, pointed to other preventative measures, such as ventilation, physical distancing and hygiene, that she said have worked to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

“I think the mask is disgusting. It’s gross watching my kids,” she said. “I watched my son pick his nose and wipe it under his mask. Why are we forcing the masks and not just doing all the other things we know are working? Masks have nothing to do with infection control. They’re actually a barrier for children.”


Gartley said RSU 18 had no documented COVID-19 transmissions during the 2020-21 school year, “so something worked.”

“I honestly think hand-washing works as much as anything we do,” he said.

Denice Hatch, a kindergarten teacher at Atwood Primary in Oakland and a parent, noted the trepidation she and others felt last year about how they would be able to teach and get along while wearing masks.

“I was worried, but once we were in school, it was an annoyance for a few weeks … but we read, we wrote, we did the math, we had Halloween parties, we celebrated birthdays,” Hatch said. “I don’t like my mask. But I was in school with my kids every day, and I’m hoping to do the same thing again.”

Gartley ultimately implored parents to “give us a chance.”

“We have worked hard for a year and a half and kept kids in school,” he said. “We are going to give it a chance and see how it goes. I will tell you this will change at some point.”

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