FARMINGTON — The Regional School Unit 9 board of directors voted Tuesday to require all students and staff in the district to mask indoors, regardless of age or vaccination status.

The new policy allows for face shields to be used in place of masks according to the specifications of their Individualized Educational Plan/504 Plan or “with a medically documented need.”

The vote was 13-2. Chairwoman Carol Coles, Vice Chairwoman Debbie Smith, Gwen Doak, Kirk Doyle, Doug Dunlap, Scott Erb, Irv Faunce, Cherieann Harrison, Betsey Hyde, J. Wayne Kinney, Gloria McGraw, Lisa Park-Laflin and Joshua Robbins voted to approve the mandate; Jesse Sillanpaa and Judith Kaut voted against it.

This is the third adjustment to the masking policy for the 2021-22 school year. Initially, the board approved a policy that required students and staff in grades prekindergarten to eight to wear masks and unvaccinated students in grades nine to 12 to wear masks, while vaccinated students in grades nine to 12 could go without.

At the Aug. 10 meeting, the board approved an adjustment that required vaccinated students in grades nine to 12 to wear either a mask or shield with the option to decide.

There was ample discussion on the masking mandate during public comment and before the vote.

Community member Mark Simonpietri raised concerns about the mental and physical side effects of masking and made claims that masks do not protect individuals from COVID-19.

Simonpietri likened masking requirements to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“George Floyd uttered the words ‘I can’t breathe,'” Simonpietri said. “Your own children say, and I say to you on their behalf, ‘I can’t breathe.'”

Simonpietri threatened to bring a lawsuit against the district for the mandate.

“I will sue you, I will hold you accountable … I will come after you for the very real side effects,” he said.

Two other people with children in the district raised similar concerns during public comment.

Vicky Cohen, a teacher at Cascade Brook, advocated for masking, describing the Center for Disease Control guidelines such as masking, social distancing and vaccination as “necessary layers of protection” against transmitting COVID-19.

During discussion before the vote, Director Doyle asked how requirements for quarantining were affected by a universal masking mandate in comparison to allowing families a choice on masking.

Superintendent Chris Elkington and Curriculum Coordinator Laura Columbia explained that under universal masking, if an individual tested positive, only students who came within 3 feet of that individual would have to quarantine, per Maine CDC guidelines. Without universal masking, all students in a classroom with that individual would have to quarantine, as was the policy in the 2020-21 school year.

The changed requirements for quarantining are “really based on universal masking throughout the school,” Elkington explained. “The other piece is that masking has been found to work. I know there is a difference of opinion on that … but if a student goes from a room that has masks and goes to a room where there aren’t masks, there’s a greater opportunity (for COVID to spread).”

“Our No. 1 goal is to have students in school, safe and in school,” Columbia said.

Director Doak added that the mandate was important because, “we are legally responsible if someone comes down with this and we didn’t do the basics of making these decisions.”

Elkington confirmed this concern, explaining “the new twist around the state is in reference to ‘if my kid comes down with this and you voted against what the CDC is saying,’ could (they) sue the district?

The board also approved a motion to incorporate “a monthly review of recommended Maine CDC guidelines and expectations for universal masking and … county and neighboring county infection and positivity rates to see if changes should be made to RSU 9’s universal masking expectations based on new data.”

Concerns were raised by Doak about changing masking policies every month. Elkington said a change might only be made if data from a couple months in a row supports removing the masking requirement.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct attribution on a series of comments offered by a community member.


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