Parent and former Regional School Unit 9 Director Jesse Sillanpaa, standing on barrier at left, addresses students Friday at the end of a “freedom of choice” walkout at the Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington. A few parents were joined by over 60 students who walked out of class to protest the district’s COVID-19 policies. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Students and parents at Mt. Blue high and middle schools staged a “freedom of choice” walkout Friday to protest some district COVID-19 policies, including the universal masking mandate and quarantining guidelines.

At 10 a.m., over 60 students walked out of class and gathered in front of the high school for about 20 minutes, joined by four parents with children who attend the school.

According to Superintendent Chris Elkington, five Mt. Blue Middle School students also walked outside and two parents dismissed their children for the day.

Near the exit to the building, a staff member sat at a table and asked students to sign out.

The walkout was organized by Jesse Sillanpaa, a parent of two high school students and a former director on the Regional School Unit 9 board of directors who resigned at the beginning of September.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Sillanpaa said the walkout was to assemble parents and students who wanted to take a stand against “the masks,” “different guidelines at different schools” and “confusion over quarantining” guidelines which vary based on a close contact’s vaccination status, proximity to a positive case, location during exposure and participation in the pool testing.

During the walkout, other parents echoed these concerns, especially about the quarantining guidelines and the differing requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

Hollie Robinson, who has two children in the district, said she was taking a stand for “equal rights for unvaccinated students.”

Ninth-grader Jesslyn Sillanpaa echoed her father’s belief that masks do not stop the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m so tired of masks,” she said. “They are so difficult to deal with.”

She said the walkout was important to “make sure we’re heard on what we think.”

Asked why he was attending, Robinson’s son, 10th-grader Hunter Frey agreed with Jesslyn Sillanpaa.

“I hate wearing masks,” he said.

As time passed, about two-thirds of the participating students chose to leave for the day. Some left no longer than five minutes after the walkout started.

When some began to return to class, one student approached Sillanpaa and said “that was the crappiest protest I’ve ever been to.”

Sillanpaa responded that the protest was “peaceful” without “looting” or “rioting.”

“There’s no picketing,” he said to Sillanpaa.

“Bring a sign,” Sillanpaa responded.

Toward the end of the protest, Sillanpaa stood atop a barrier and addressed the remaining crowd, thanking them for participating and saying, “we’ll see if it makes a difference.”

Sillanpaa said he is planning to ask the board to reconsider the pandemic guidelines at their next meeting Oct. 26, where they will do their monthly COVID-19 policy review. He encouraged others to attend and express their concerns.

In an interview after the walkout, Elkington said that he supported the students’ right to walk out. He also said that the administration will be addressing claims that some teachers did not allow their students to leave and ensure that it won’t happen again.

“Our concern was if (the walkout) was going to be long, if classes were interrupted,” he said. That did not happen, he added.

However, Elkington said the administration will not alter the district’s COVID policy because of the walkout.

In September, Sillanpaa resigned from the board because, among other reasons, he disagreed with the board’s approval of a universal masking mandate across the district because it is “teaching compliance rather than safety,” he said.

Prior to the walkout, Sillanpaa also said masks “do not stop” the spread of COVID, which he stated at previous board meetings before he resigned.

Sillanpaa and other participating parents said they do not believe the CDC’s “Science Brief” that cites numerous scientific sources for “experimental and epidemiological data (that) support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

Robinson said she’s seen scientific proof on both sides of the debate, but could not name the sources or journals disproving the efficacy of masks “off the top of (her) head.” She said she found them on Google.

The parents also disagree with the district’s policy on quarantining because of the different exemptions.

Multiple parents said that it is “unfair” to allow exemptions based on vaccination status when vaccinated individuals can still contract the virus. They “need equality.”

As it stands, the district’s quarantining guidelines are:

Because of the universal masking mandate, all students within 3 feet of a positive case have to quarantine for 10 days unless:

• The close contact has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for more than 14 days.

• The close contact previously tested positive for COVID-19 within 90 days of the exposure.

• The close contact participates in weekly school pooled testing and the exposure happened at school.

However, close contacts outside of that 3 feet do have to quarantine if the exposure occurs outside of classrooms — in buses, cafeterias, sports and other school-sponsored activities — or if physical contact occurs.

The close contacts that have to quarantine are also expected to test for COVID-19 immediately after exposure and five to seven days later.

These guidelines fall in line with requirements from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Education.


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