ANSON — Classes began for all students in Regional School Unit 74 on Thursday after district officials earlier delayed the start of freshmen orientation following a handful of COVID-19 cases at Carrabec High School.

The resumption of classes occurred after the district’s board of directors voted Wednesday to maintain the policy of recommending that students and staff wear masks, rather than mandating it despite the announcement this week of the positive coronavirus cases.

Board discussions lasted for about three hours before members finally voted. Superintendent Mike Tracy at one point noted that over the last 17 months 38 people under the age of 20 have been hospitalized in Maine.  One death has been reported among that age group.

“This wouldn’t be a matter of interest if this weren’t about students,” Tracy said. “The theme of this meeting is student safety.”

Carrabec is among dozens of other schools across central Maine that opened this week, with plans to operate in full swing after a year of remote learning. Each school district has been tasked with crafting its own reopening plan while considering the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and other agencies.

The more contagious delta variant is contributing to a surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Maine and elsewhere in the country. State health officials reported 624 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the highest daily total since January.

The RSU 74 board rejected a proposal Wednesday to modify in-person learning based on escalating coronavirus cases. Tracy had offered the proposal to “create a structure where I can show the community what my thinking is.”

Under the plan, the district would be in a “green” status if there was no more than a single COVID-19 case within a 10-day period at a school. Masking would remain optional and social distancing and hygiene practices would remain in place.

The district status would move to “yellow” if there were up to three cases at a school within a 10-day period. In this phase, masks would be required irrespective of vaccination status.

And the district would move into a “red” phase if more than three cases were recorded at a school over 10 days. This would mean students revert back to learning remotely.

“We have known cases at the high school and my recommendation would be opening K-12 tomorrow with a temporary, short-term 10-day mask mandate at the high school,” Tracy said Wednesday. “That is likely what I would recommend based on this (plan.)”

He reminded the board that it could also maintain the policy of keeping masks optional for students and staff.

“We can do whatever (the board) wants to do. I hate to be tongue in cheek, but we can go green or go home,” Tracy said. “We could go green all the way up until the (Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention) steps in.”

Tracy reported three positive cases of COVID-19 among students at the high school and said those cases involved student-athletes. Four additional cases were identified in the following days.

All but one of the additional four cases were identified as involving those with close contact to the initial positive cases, Tracy said.

As a result, 11 students at Carrabec High have been identified as having close contact with infected people and must quarantine before returning to school, he said.

Board member Grace Carreiro said she did not want a mask mandate or to reintroduce remote learning, citing the mental health of students.

“I know how great our kids suffered,” Carreiro said. “(Tracy) said there were 38 hospitalized under 20. We don’t know the underlying conditions.”

She said even if children do become ill, “they come out of it better than any other adult.”

Masking students or keeping them home would only serve to “traumatize” them, she claimed.

But board member Eric Ewing countered by saying that although children “do better compared to anyone else,” the bigger picture must be considered.

“We’re in a community, though we’ve seen that children will statistically probably be OK, they go home. Instead of bringing homework, they’re bringing home something that could really damage our community,” Ewing said.

Federal health experts have said that masking alone will not completely prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masking that’s done in conjunction with social distancing, ventilation and proper hygiene can prevent transmission, they’ve argued.

Parents pushed back on Tracy’s color-coding system and criticized any mask mandate for students.

“This whole society is ‘ifs,’ the science is all ‘ifs,’ ” said Wayne Coro, a New Portland parent. “Most of the masks you’re wearing aren’t real masks, it doesn’t help anything. We should be more worried about education than making them suffer more and more.”

Despite Coro’s claim, the federal CDC, National Institutes of Health and other leading public health agencies say masks help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Coro argued that students “didn’t learn nothing last year” when they were learning remotely.

“They weren’t home, they were on the streets, at their friends’ house playing video games. If you think that’s a solution to this problem, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Tracy has long advocated bringing students back to school full-time, dating back to a February letter he sent to the state’s leadership urging them to reconsider coronavirus restrictions in an effort to get more students back in class.

Board member Bobbi Sue Harrington said in response to Tracy’s color-coded system that the district should “stand by educational best practices.”

“For the best mental health of our students, I think we should go no masks and stand by what the CDC is saying like we have this entire time and let them tell us what to do and not micromanage anything,” Harrington said.

RSU 74 serves the towns of Anson, Embden, Solon and New Portland.

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