SKOWHEGAN — A mask requirement for students and staff in Maine School Administrative District 54 will remain in place after the board of directors upheld the rule this week.

The board’s decision Thursday follows a recommendation first made by district Superintendent Jon Moody in August. The board has revisited the policy each month.

The board convened at Skowhegan Area High School and the meeting included four Skowhegan police officers, including Chief David Bucknam, out of concern the board’s exchange with some residents could be contentious.

A few people spoke who said they wanted the board to reconsider the mask mandate, arguing that masks are proving harmful to children.

Among them was Waterville resident Nick Blanchard, founder of a group calling itself Maine Patriots With Attitude and which protests mask mandates in schools.

Blanchard, who refers to himself as Corn Pop, told the board the mask requirement “was never about our kids’ health,” rather “it’s part of a Marxist agenda.”

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“We are putting you on notice, now is the time to speak up,” Blanchard said. “The red wave is coming and we are replacing every single one of you (board members). This is child abuse.”

He accused the board of failing to provide data and other research about COVID-19 measures. But Chairwoman Lynda Quinn explained the data he’s seeking has been available online for months and packets with information were available in the back of the room.

Blanchard cut her off. “False facts,” he said.

Blanchard spoke on behalf of Wayne Wofford, a parent of a student in the district who was recently issued a trespassing notice from police that bans him from school board meetings for a year. Wofford had regularly attended board meetings and opposes masking in schools.

Although the circumstances of Wofford’s ban weren’t fully explained Thursday, Quinn said prior to the public comment period that if members of the public do not follow rules set by the board, “we will probably ask you to not come back here.”

“This is public property that (Wofford) pays taxes on, and he was banned because he spoke out,” Blanchard said. “Our next step is getting a lawyer and going to the Town Council to file a complaint.”

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While Wofford was not in attendance Thursday, his wife and child both spoke. The pair believe that Wofford’s exclusion from meetings is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

“The only threat (Wofford) made was to have board members arrested for child abuse,” Vicky Wofford said.

District rules require the use of masks by everyone in all district schools, irrespective of vaccination status. By implementing a universal masking policy, officials are able to discontinue contact tracing and adjust certain quarantine and COVID-19 rules.

Derek Chretien, left, is checked for weapons by Skowhegan police Officer Dave Daigneault before Chretien was allowed into the building Thursday to attend the board of directors meeting at Skowhegan Area High School in Skowhegan. Chretien said he was at Maine School Administrative District 54’s meeting to support his First Amendment rights. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Administrators say the mask policy has allowed the district to operate without closing any schools this year, though students in some classrooms have been sent home to quarantine at times.

“The evidence (about masking) has been outlined since September. It was updated in October, and it’s always been available on the website,” Moody said. “There are no secrets. The reality is some people disagree with it, that’s a fact of public policy. There are times where boards, like this one, have to make decisions that not everyone agrees with.”

Moody noted that all the districts that MSAD 54 competes with also have mask mandates in place.

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While most people who attended Thursday’s meeting spoke out against masking, others suggested that school officials aren’t doing enough to protect students and staff from the coronavirus and could do more, like providing N95 masks, providing a place for students to eat lunch where they can spread out, and offering better remote learning options for students who must work from home.

“Some students (across the country) had a walkout in light of new (COVID-19 protocols),” said Cecil Gray, an employee with the district.

Skowhegan Area High School Principal Bruce Mochamer said Friday that a walkout has not occurred at the high school nor has he heard of any plans for one.

“The kids are frustrated (over masks) but they are awesome and they come to school every day and wear them,” Mochamer said. “But I told them, ‘if you have questions about masks, or are uncomfortable, you can do a petition and present it to the school board.’ Walking out is not the way to do it.”

Moody said his recommendation for masking is based on four factors: state and federal guidance, keeping students in school safely, student vaccination, and state and local data. The recommendation is also based on guidance from agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, Maine Department of Education and the American Medical Association.

Moody said masking in schools hasn’t been ideal for students and staff but “we haven’t seen spread in schools nearly to the degree as we’re seeing spread outside of schools.”

As of Dec. 16, districtwide 1,253 students and 19 staff members have had to quarantine and 309 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the academic year began. During the 2020-21 school year, there were 60 cases of COVID-19 in the district, resulting in 1,210 people needing to quarantine, according to data available on the district’s website.

In addition to Skowhegan, MSAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock and Smithfield.

Kennebec Journal reporter Emily Duggan contributed to this report.

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