The Mills administration will update its mask recommendations for schools on Wednesday, although changes will not take effect immediately, a state spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“We intend to announce adjustments to the masking guidance for schools and child care facilities (on Wednesday), with an effective date that allows time for these settings to prepare,” said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Maine health officials have continued to recommend masks be worn in public schools, and most districts have mandates in place. Farwell would not say how the recommendations will change, but the state has been under increasing pressure from school districts to update its guidance and recommend that masks be made optional.

Federal guidelines that were updated last week still recommend masks be worn indoors in most parts of Maine. However, a Press Herald analysis shows that without a backlog of unprocessed positive tests creating artificially high case counts, most of Maine would fall under federal risk categories that would recommend masks become optional in schools.

Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Maine Public’s “Maine Calling” radio program on Tuesday that a team of epidemiologists at the health agency will be looking for “stability” in improving pandemic conditions later this week or early next week to make a call on school masking recommendations in the near future.

“This is a scientific process. I don’t want to be hasty,” Shah said. “I understand there’s a lot of enthusiasm for moving away from (masking).”


But a few hours after Shah was a guest on “Maine Calling,” Farwell indicated that the masking recommendations would occur on Wednesday.

A growing number of districts have been breaking away from the state’s advice and lifting mandates, while many others are waiting on the green light from Mills administration health officials before moving to masking optional policies.

Yarmouth schools announced on Tuesday that masking will become optional on Monday. Andrew Dolloff, Yarmouth superintendent, sent a letter to parents on Tuesday pointing to vaccination rates near 90 percent for students and staff, low case counts and overall improving conditions. The Yarmouth community has had one of the most comprehensive approaches to controlling COVID-19 in the state.

“While we know there are many who will support this change, we are also aware that some students and staff will want to continue to wear face coverings in school buildings. It is vital that we support others in this personal choice, and we will clearly convey that message to all students and staff,” Dolloff wrote.

Yarmouth schools may be the first in Cumberland County to set a hard date for optional masking, but officials in the Cumberland-North Yarmouth district plan to consider optional masking at a board meeting on Monday. If the Maine School Administrative District 51 board adopts the mask optional plan laid out by Superintendent Jeff Porter, students would be able to choose whether or not to mask up starting March 14.

Other districts, such as Lewiston, Lisbon, Bath and several in central Maine, also have made masking optional or set a date for when it will become optional.


In Freeport, those who want masking made optional made their voices heard Tuesday morning. A small group of parents and students gathered to protest the department’s masking policy at the Durham Community School and later moved to Freeport High School. Following protocol, school leadership asked the protesters to vacate school grounds. They complied.

“I understand that this is a frustrating time for many regarding whether to mask or not, and tensions regarding this type of issue are high,” Regional School Unit 5 Superintendent Becky Foley said in an email to the community. “I want to assure everyone that the school department and board are looking closely to the CDC for their guidance on when we can safely move to mask optional.”

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, will continue to require masks, Superintendent Xavier Botana said during a board meeting Tuesday night, citing Maine’s masking guidelines.

“I do not want to rush to undo our (COVID-19) mitigation practices,” Botana said.


Maine is the only state in New England that has not set a date for recommending when masking can become optional in schools or removing an indoor mask mandate. Governors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut have either already made masking optional in schools or the date for masks to become optional is coming up soon.


The Maine CDC does not mandate a policy for schools, but continues to recommend indoor masking in schools. The U.S. CDC put out new guidelines last week that recommended masks optional in about 70 percent of the country, but most of Maine did not qualify. However, Maine’s artificially high case count that includes cases from a voluminous backlog is skewing the results of a calculation the federal agency is using to make masking recommendations.

Shah said on Tuesday that although the backlog is influencing the results somewhat, the U.S. CDC’s placement of most of Maine in the “high” category is largely accurate due to the rate of new admissions for hospitalizations and hospital capacity. Maine’s hospitalization rate is improving, but as a largely rural state, the hospital capacity is lower compared to urban areas of the nation.

However, a Press Herald analysis of unprocessed positive tests from Feb. 10-24, when compared with new hospital admissions and hospital capacity, shows that likely only two counties, Aroostook and Knox, would still be in the “high” category with masks recommended for schools. All other Maine counties would be in “moderate” or “low” with masking optional, according to the Press Herald analysis.

By using unprocessed positive tests, the case counts that are part of the backlog are not included in the analysis, painting a picture of case counts closer to what was actually happening on Feb. 24, when the U.S. CDC released the color codes for each county.


Meanwhile, the number of unprocessed positive tests continues to plummet in Maine, with only 75 positive tests reported to the Maine CDC on Monday, according to data posted by the health agency on Tuesday.


That’s a sharp downturn compared to when about 2,500 to 3,500 positive tests were pouring into the Maine CDC on a daily basis when the omicron wave was at its peak in early to mid-January. Last week, unprocessed positive tests ranged from 300 to 400 per day. Other indications of the pandemic ebbing in Maine include decreasing hospitalizations and a sharp drop in the levels of virus found in wastewater in cities and towns across the state.

The number of patients with COVID-19 in Maine hospitals dropped again Tuesday to 158, down from 168 on Monday and a decline of 61 percent from the peak of 436 hospitalized patients on Jan. 13. The number of patients in intensive care climbed from 39 on Monday to 44 on Tuesday. The  number of patients in critical care peaked at 133 on Dec. 19.

Maine reported one additional death from COVID-19 on Tuesday, and added 1,182 more confirmed cases in the first update in three days. Confirmed cases do not reflect current trends because Maine is working through the backlog from when the omicron wave overwhelmed the ability of the Maine CDC to process positive tests. Since mid-February, the agency switched to a partially automated process to go through the backlog and to be able to process tests in a timely manner if there’s another wave of cases.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 227,332 cases and 2,065 deaths.

Press Herald Staff Writer Lana Cohen contributed to this report.

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