Within a week, public schools across central Maine will be open in full swing after a difficult year of remote learning, coronavirus cases and uncertainty.

Unlike last year, the districts have been tasked with how to open schools and to distinguish the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations alongside the Department of Education’s Standard Operating Procedures. The state agencies have recommendations that are expected to reduce the pandemic’s impact within the school experience.

Schools in central Maine have been all over the board with their interpretations of the guidelines — some are divided on the issue of whether to require masking of students and staff. Parents have been packing school board meetings to vocally support or decry mask mandates and sharply question boards’ reasoning.

Experts say the COVID-19 surge is being caused by the more contagious delta variant, which now accounts for nearly all of the cases in Maine, and low vaccination rates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says studies prove properly-worn masks have reduced new infections.

Current data provided by Maine CDC reflects that 70.9% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. In Kennebec County that number is slightly lower, at just under 65%, while Somerset County still trails the rest of the state with the lowest vaccination rate, just under 57%.

State officials reported 267 new cases of COVID-19 statewide, including a surge in critical care patients, with 71 hospitalized on Friday. On Saturday, Maine CDC announced 415 new cases and two deaths.

Under the Maine Department of Education’s Standard Operating Procedures, schools are given recommendations to follow to minimize risk and the amount of time a student, or teacher, has to quarantine if possibly exposed to the virus.

But all students, regardless of their district’s policy, must mask up on school buses and vans, per federal guidelines for public transportation.

The ways quarantining can be avoided are through pool testing, social distancing with universal masking or if a student or staff member is not showing symptoms. Before the exceptions were made this year, a whole classroom could have been considered a close contact which could have prompted a number of students to remote learning until 10 days are up, or they test negative for COVID-19.

Schools can choose if they would like to participate in pool testing and if the school chooses to do so, parents have to opt their child in to participate. Previously, a 30% participation rate per building was needed, but the DOE has adjusted it to allow anyone, even the vaccinated, who wants to participate to do so if the school is allowing it. Participants will conduct their own nose swab test on a weekly basis — if one comes back positive, a rapid test will be performed within the pool to find the positive case.

Physical distancing in the classroom is recommended at 3 feet, or 6 feet in the lunchroom, but should not get in the way of students coming to school, according to the state guidance.

Here are what public schools in the Augusta and Waterville areas plan to do for the return to school:

AUGUSTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS

The largest public school system in the Augusta-area decided to mandate masks, regardless of vaccination status for students, staff and visitors.

The decision was easy for most of the Board of Education, with five members voting in favor and one against. Kati McCormick, the lone dissenting vote, wished there was more of a discussion among the board and was vocal about her opinion that is should be a “parent’s choice.”

“My biggest concern is, I would never go into your home and tell you what’s best for your child,” McCormick said.

In addition to universal masking, the school will participate in pool testing. The district was the first in the area to sign on to pool testing and school officials were confident they would have been able to get the original threshold of 30% of the building to participate.

Augusta Public Schools will not offer a remote option.

The first day of school for first to sixth grade will be on Wednesday. School starts Thursday for 10th through 12th grade and Tuesday, Sept. 7, for kindergarteners.

MSAD 11

Maine School Administrative District 11, which serves Gardiner, West Gardiner, Pittston and Randolph, will not participate in pool testing but will require universal masking for all staff, students and visitors. 

Most of the school board agreed with the decision, even after hearing conflicting opinions from parents who thought masking should be optional. The meeting had a record-level attendance at 300 views on YouTube livestream. 

The district sent a survey to families that generated a response from 840 families and 55% of staff members. Of the two groups that responded, 52% of families and 75% of staff were in favor of a mask mandate.  

For first to ninth grades, the first day will be on Wednesday, while 10th to 12th grades will start on Thursday and kindergarten will start on Tuesday, Sept. 7. 

MSAD 49

Maine School Administrative District 49, which serves the towns of Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield, will offer full in-person learning this year, with no remote options. The district will require masks, a voluntary pool testing program and people will social distance as much as is possible in the buildings.

The school board approved the fall reopening plan, which included the mask mandate, at a meeting earlier this month. The mask requirement will be revisited in October.

Superintendent Roberta Hersom said that the goal of all of the district’s policies this year is to keep kids in school, and avoid having to send them home because they are sick or came into contact with someone who is.

The district will also offer a voluntary pool testing program through the state’s Department of Education, Hersom said.

MSAD 54

Students and staff members of Maine School Administrative District 54 will begin on Wednesday, with universal masking required for at least the first month. Following a tense Aug. 12 meeting that included some parents shouting and swearing at school officials, the majority of the Skowhegan-based school board opted to mask up for the first few weeks of school, citing local positivity rates, county designation, county vaccination rate, the availability of immunizations for students pre-K through grade 8, and adjustments made to federal and state recommendations.

The district is anticipating the return of full-time in-person learning.

MSAD 54, which serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan, will reassess masking at its October board meeting.

MSAD 59

In Madison, Maine School Administrative District 59 administrators opted to “take the politics” out of the decision on whether to mask by “giving the parents the option.”

That decision makes the district just one of two in the area — both in Somerset County, the least-vaccinated county in the state — to not adopt universal masking.

The district has about 575 students; those in kindergarten through grade 9 will return on Wednesday, while the remainder of students will begin Thursday.

At the Aug. 16 meeting, school board members unanimously supported Superintendent Bonnie Levesque’s recommendation to recommend masking for students and staff but not require it. “I won’t lie,” the superintendent said, “science says it’s safer to wear the mask.”

RSU 2

The board of directors for Regional School Unit 2, which serves Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond, decided to follow the CDC’s recommendations, which means universal masking for all students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.

The decision came with some push back from board members as the vote was seven in favor of universal masking to five preferring to make masking optional.

Superintendent Tonya Arnold shared data from a community and staff survey. Of the 149 staff responses, 77.2% were in favor of wearing masks and 22.8% were against.

Out of the staff who answered the survey, a majority were in favor of wearing a mask for the upcoming school year. Tonya Arnold

As for the 464 parents who responded, 58% were in favor of wearing masks and 41.5% were against it. The surveys were brought up at the Aug. 13 board of directors meeting where the back-to-school guidelines were established.

Out of the 464 families who responded to the survey, 58.6% preferred a mask mandate. Tonya Arnold

Arnold said there are roughly 2,000 families in RSU 2.

The first day of school for RSU 2 is Thursday, and there will not be a remote learning option this year.

RSU 12 

Regional School Unit 12 will participate in universal masking and pool testing. RSU 12 includes Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Windsor, Whitefield and Westport Island. Students in the district attend high school at one of the town’s surrounding schools. 

The district’s decision came down to keeping students in school as much as possible. 

The first day of school will be Tuesday.  

RSU 18

Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 also opted to require masking in schools after tense remarks from parents at the Aug. 18 board meeting.

Students in the district, which serves the towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, are set to return to school on Wednesday.

The decision is not permanent and will be reassessed by the school board regularly as conditions change and new data are available. RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley said that a benefit to requiring masking is that in the event a COVID-19 case is identified, close contacts will no longer be required to quarantine, although affected students will, providing a greater chance whole classrooms or schools will not need to quarantine or switch to remote learning.

Staff graphic by Daryl Madore

RSU 38 

The last school district in the Augusta-area to make its back-to-school decision was Regional School Unit 38 and the district is the only in the area to make masking “optional.” But this past week, there were indications the district, which serves Readfield, Manchester, Wayne and Mount Vernon, may reconsider that decision

The full motion makes the decision to wear a mask a “parent’s choice” but it is “strongly recommended” for students and teachers who are not vaccinated. The school district did decide to participate in pool testing and there will be no remote testing.

The board of directors will meet Monday at 6:30 p.m. in Maranacook Community High School’s gym to listen to the community’s thoughts on the plan after it received attention on social media.

RSU 74

Like Madison, the Anson-based Regional School Unit 74 has opted to recommend masking but not require it for students or staff. Superintendent Mike Tracy has been advocating to return to full-time, 100% in-person learning since February, when he addressed state officials in a letter asking them to consider the negative impacts of keeping students at home.

Students in grades pre-kindergarten through grade 9 will begin on Wednesday and the remainder of students will start Thursday.

Tracy said earlier this week that he anticipates around 600 students to return next week. RSU 74 serves the towns of Anson, Embden, New Portland and Solon.

WATERVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Students within the Waterville Public School system will return to the classroom with universal masking inside buildings.

School superintendent Eric Haley said pandemic protocols will be reviewed weekly by the administrative team.

Pool testing is also on the system’s radar, but not yet in place.

“We are starting the process to participate in pool testing but it takes a while so it won’t be up and running to start the school year,” Haley said.

Wednesday is the first day of school for kindergarten, grades 4-6 and 9, and Thursday for everyone else. 

WINSLOW PUBLIC SCHOOLS

On Aug. 1, Winslow Public Schools Superintendent Peter Thiboutot said the schools would follow the CDC recommendations and with that, will participate in pool testing. Vaccinated students and staff members will still have to wear a mask as well.

The decision was unanimous among the school board.

“The delta variant is throwing a curveball and Winslow, Maine, is not immune to the danger this variant is causing,” Thiboutot wrote in a message to the school community.

School starts Wednesday for grades 1-6, 7 and 9; Thursday for everyone else except kindergarten, which begins Tuesday, Sept. 7.

WINTHROP PUBLIC SCHOOLS 

Winthrop Public Schools have mandated universal masking, and will offer pool testing. 

The school committee largely considered the opinions of medical professionals in the audience of the meeting on Aug. 18 and were able to ask any questions they had in the process. The professionals recommended universal masking, pool testing and social distancing of at least 3 feet when possible.  

The district will not offer a remote school option and will start on Tuesday, Sept. 7, for pre-K and kindergarten and on Thursday for the rest of the grades. 

Morning Sentinel Reporters Amy Calder and Kaitlyn Budion contributed to this report.

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