OAKLAND — Regional School Unit 18’s superintendent announced Friday that after February break the district would no longer enforce the universal mask mandate in school buildings.

Superintendent Carl Gartley addressed the communities in a letter Friday with the news after he said he consulted with the school board chairperson, other board members, the administrative team, the teacher’s association, parents, state officials and other staff members, over the decision. RSU 18 oversees schools in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

“Everyone expressed some concern, but based on the number of cases, the severity of illness, hospitalization rates, new guidance and efficiency of masks and other data, overwhelmingly, people believe it’s time for a change,” Gartley wrote, emphasizing that students and faculty may still wear masks if they want.

The school district’s announcement comes as positive COVID-19 tests reported each day to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention has plummeted by 80% since the totals peaked in late January. Those and other metrics show the surge in cases is receding that was brought on by the highly contagious omicron variant of the disease.

RSU 18, like many other local school districts, opted to adopt a mask mandate for school buildings at the start of the school year at a time when the delta variant of COVID-19 was fueling a surge in cases.

The district’s decision to no longer require masks is effective Monday, Feb. 28, but students will still have to mask on the school bus due to the federal mandate on public transportation that does not expire until March 18, Gartley wrote.


Gartley said the district will still undergo safety measures, like increased cleaning, air quality controls, hand sanitizer and outdoor learning spaces. In addition, he said the district will provide staff members with KN95 masks.

He acknowledged in his letter that he is aware some students and staff members will still chose to wear a mask.

“We need to ensure that as a school community, we do not make anyone feel like they should or should not be wearing a mask,” Gartley wrote in the letter. “Neither option is wrong. We will support everyone in their decision.”

The announcement comes a few days after the Maine CDC and Department of Education updated the Standard Operating Procedures once again that school districts do not have to contact-trace for COVID-19 cases if they choose to forgo universal masking. Before, one of the benefits of being a universal masking school, mainly for administrative staff, was that contact tracing was not required.

Regional School Unit 18 is the first district in central Maine to lift the mask mandate ahead of the CDC’s recommendations. Schools in other states have already been setting similar dates.

Though RSU 18 will not have to contact trace, the district will have to quarantine students who test positive for COVID-19. They will either need to quarantine for 10 days or quarantine until five days, or a negative test, and return to school for the remainder of 10-day period wearing a mask.


Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Wednesday during his news briefing the reason for the decision is because omicron spreads “so quickly, contact tracing loses its effectiveness, regardless if masking is in place.” Dr. Shah said though the state does not mandate masks, the CDC is still recommending staff and students wear them.

“These lower trends present opportunity to revisit our recommendation to mask in schools,” he said about the dwindling COVID-19 case and hospitalization in the state. “This is a prudent thing to do. We recommend masking and have done so to reduce the risk of transmission and to keep students in the classroom, but the risk of transmission is tied to the overall COVID-19 rate in the community.

As community rates come down, the risk of transmission in school goes down, thus the need for masks, comes down.”

Shah said in addition to community transmission rates of the virus averaging downward, the number of students across the state who got COVID-19 this year, around 35,000 students, in combination with the vaccination rates of students, creates an immunity among the population.

Though other school boards in central Maine have opened up the conversation, most districts, like Maine School Administrative District 11 and the Augusta Public Schools, have vowed to revisit the conversation after February vacation, on par with what Dr. Shah said Wednesday he and his team will do.

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