FARMINGTON — The Regional School Unit 9 board of directors voted Tuesday, Aug. 24, for a universal masking mandate that will 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.”

Thirteen directors voted in favor of the mandate: Chairperson Carol Coles of Starks; Vice Chairperson Debbie Smith of Weld; Gwen Doak, Irv Faunce and Cherieann Harrison of Wilton; Kirk Doyle, Doug Dunlap, J. Wayne Kinney, Gloria McGraw and Scott Erb of Farmington;  Betsey Hyde of Temple; Lisa Park-Laflin of New Vineyard; and Joshua Robbins of Vienna.

Two voted against the mandate: Jesse Sillanpaa of Industry and Judith Kaut of New Sharon.

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 again 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.

Cohen likened masking to preparation for school shootings, necessary steps to keep students and staff safe.

“COVID is an unfortunate reality, just as school shootings are an unfortunate reality,” Cohen said. “Your job as school board members is to do everything possible to keep students physically safe.”

Cohen also noted that teachers in the district are “reluctant” to return to work without masking requirements.

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.

Doyle asked that the board revisit the policy and this discussion when Elkington could confirm how a classroom with completely masked students would need to quarantine without a universal masking mandate. He suggested that less time quarantining would incentivize students to wear masks without having to require it.

Director Doak said 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.

“I think to have this up every single month for a new decision to be made doesn’t give the continuity our students or staff deserve,” Doak said. “I do think we should be having reports monthly, but not that it would necessarily impact or change our decision.”

Elkington said a change might only be made if data from a couple months in a row supports removing the masking requirement.

“I think that if we see a dramatic difference, then I think that should be brought to you and you should discuss it,” Elkington said.

The board also accepted two grants: a $50,000 grant for Foster Career and Technical Education Center from the Logging and Forestry Education Grant Program of the Department of Agriculture; and a $9,000 American Rescue Plan Act homeless grant.

The ARPA homeless grant will help homeless liaison Lisa Sinclair build a structure that will provide homeless students in the district more support.

Director Kaut asked what the district is doing for students that are identified as homeless multiple years in a row.

Sinclair said this grant “will provide the ability to offer a wider net of support,” beyond the federally-required services that the district provides to homeless students, such as transportation, free meals and immediate enrollment.

Elkington added that this grant could give Sinclair the ability “to go after other funds.”

“If Lisa builds other wrap-around services, that might give us some connections to find other resources,” Elkington said.

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