WATERVILLE — A letter to the editor from a Waterville Junior High School seventh grader concerned about COVID-19 safety measures in her school prompted the principal to launch a discussion with student leaders to seek solutions.

The student, Gabrielle Johnson, wrote the letter to Central Maine Sunday that was published Jan. 23 saying teachers and the Waterville Board of Education are compromising the safety of the children. The school requires students who have to be told to pull their masks up on their faces to go to the office to get a new mask, Gabrielle’s letter said, adding that if they still don’t wear it properly, they are to “be sent home to ensure the safety of the people in the building.”

Melanie Lecours, the head nurse for Waterville public schools, told the Board of Education on Monday that over a three-week period this month a total of 130 students and staff reported having COVID-19. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

“However, not one kid has been sent to the office and kids are, literally, screaming in the hallways and in classrooms with their masks pulled all the way down, not just below the nose,” the letter said. “Kids in classes have it below their nose all the time and teachers stay silent.”

She goes on to say unvaccinated students who are close contacts with people testing positive are not being quarantined.

Waterville Junior High Principal Don Roux told the board Monday night that students are indeed sent to the office if they’re not properly wearing a mask, but Gabrielle’s letter presents an opportunity for students and staff to discuss the concern about safety. The question, he said, is how to address it and look at “where things are loose and where they should be tightened up.”

Roux said he will speak with the school’s student leadership team to discuss how those in the school can hold each other accountable and what they all can do to be part of a solution.

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“The editorial actually brought to light a lot of different things,” he said.

Board Chairperson Joan Phillips-Sandy commended Gabrielle for writing the letter and signing it. She asked if Roux had addressed the issue with Gabrielle. He said he had not as he doesn’t want to single her out. Since she is on the leadership team, she will be part of the discussion, he said.

“What I care about is, now that we have it on the table, let’s discuss it,” Roux said. “Let’s find a solution.”

Phillips-Sandy said she wanted to clarify that according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention and state Department of Education, people who are unvaccinated and close contacts of someone with COVID-19 should quarantine for five days even though they can attend school as long as they don’t have symptoms and the school requires masking.

Gabrielle’s mother, Jennifer Johnson, was in the audience of about 30 people Monday night.

In a separate COVID-related discussion, head school nurse Melanie Lecours said she has received positive feedback from parents about Waterville schools’ COVID-19 protocols and the schools are working with parents to help them understand the guidelines.

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Lecours reported that over the three-week period from Jan. 3 to Jan. 21 in all four school buildings, a total of 130 students and staff reported having COVID-19. The breakdown was 34 cases at George J. Mitchell School, 15 at Albert S. Hall School, 33 at the junior high and 48 at Waterville Senior High School, she said. Of those cases, 113 were students and 17 staff. School nurses conducted 362 COVID tests during the three-week period, she said, adding that 46 of the 130 positive cases were discovered by nurses doing that testing.

“Our families have been our partners — they’ve been really terrific,” she said.

Superintendent Eric Haley said he plans to conduct a survey to find students and staff willing to sign up for a random testing program that will help identify those who are asymptomatic, though the program hinges on the school district acquiring more tests, which it has ordered.

Board member Pam Trinward said she supports random testing and while she understands the concept of testing people who are symptomatic, that’s akin to closing the barn door after the horses have left.

Board member Pat Helm asked Lecours about children with symptoms whose parents refuse to have them tested. Helm wanted to know if that is a significant problem in Waterville.

“Those children go home,” Lecours said. “The rule is, if you’re sick, you go home.”

Board member Greg Bazakas asked whether officials have an understanding of “what kinds of masks work and what kinds don’t.”

Lecours said that, per the CDC and DOE, students and staff are allowed to wear cloth masks and they recommend masks have triple layers.

“This is their recommendation, but they’re not at this point asking that people wear a particular type of mask and they have indicated that is not likely to happen,” she said.

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