MADISON — Face masks are now required for all staff and students in Madison public schools in response to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the community.

The Maine School Administrative District 59 board of directors decided Monday to require masks, changing an earlier vote in August. The new policy goes into effect when students and staff return to in-person learning on Wednesday, according to Superintendent Bonnie Levesque.

The board had previously decided to keep masks optional and up to parents in an effort to “take the politics” out of the discussion.

An increase in COVID-19 cases in the community last week resulted in the closure of a day care in town, which created a staffing shortage at MSAD 59 as some employees were forced to stay home with their children.

As a result of community transmission, all three of the district’s schools — Madison Elementary, Madison Junior High and Madison Senior Memorial High School — are experiencing an outbreak, a designation made by state health officials. Levesque on Tuesday reported 12 active cases across the district.

“When we decided in August to have the parent-choice (policy), we tried to leave the politics out of it, because we knew some parents did and some parents did not want their kids to wear masks,” Levesque said. “We hoped that when we … made it (the parents’) choice that (kids) would wear masks, and they didn’t.”

She said it was a “perfect storm that erupted” in the district last week, when 102 students — about 20% of the district’s population — were sent home to quarantine in addition to 10 staff members who were also out.

Nearly 40 people attended Monday’s school board meeting, with many questioning the new mask requirement and how it changes other coronavirus protocols in school, such as social distancing. Some expressed frustration with the district’s leadership over the handling of COVID-19 as well as how remote learning was coordinated for students.

The new mandate requires masking in schools with the exception of lunch times and recess for elementary school students. Adopting the policy also allows for the social distancing threshold for close contact to go down from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Under the Maine Department of Education’s change in protocol for the new school year, if a school requires masks to be worn, not all students in a class have to quarantine after a confirmed COVID-19 case in the classroom. Close contacts are those who are within 3 feet of a confirmed COVID-19 case for more than 15 minutes cumulatively or someone who had direct contact with the positive person.

Kathy Bertini, the district’s curriculum coordinator, urged parents to support the mask mandate. The best way for students to learn, she said, is by having a skilled teacher who builds relationships with students.

“When students go home with the packets and ask their parents for help and their parent feels overwhelmed, it’s understandably so because that’s our craft,” Bertini said. “Your kid physically being here in school is crucial. In order to move this district forward and accelerate learning, we have to have your kids here and if the mask allows us to have your kids here, vote it in.”

Last week, nearby North Anson-based Regional School Unit 74 adopted a temporary mask mandate to have in place when schools have more than one positive case of COVID-19.

State officials reported 632 new cases of COVID-19 statewide over a three-day period and 18 additional deaths on Tuesday.

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