POLAND — After rejecting four other options, the Regional School Unit 16’s board of directors agreed this week to require everybody at its three elementary schools to wear masks when students return to class.

The move followed a lengthy debate about whether the three-town district should mandate the use of masks – either by everyone or only for those who are not yet vaccinated – or if the decision should be left entirely in the hands of parents and students.

RSU 16 Superintendent Kenneth Healey

While some members sought to avoid imposing any mask requirements, others urged that some or all people on school property should have face coverings to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus that forced the district to adopt a hybrid model during the past academic year that saw most students in their classrooms only twice a week.

Superintendent Kenneth Healey’s plan did not include a mask mandate for anyone. He said he strongly urged people who are not vaccinated to wear one but thought it best to let parents decide if they want to follow the recommendations of health experts or not.

Siding with Healey, Elizabeth Martin, a parent from Minot, told the board it’s her responsibility, not theirs, “to ensure my child’s health” and she should have the choice to do what she thinks best.

But critics who favored masking said that leaving it up to parents amounted to putting the safety of all children in the hands of those who don’t want to see face coverings any longer.

“We need masks,” said Ed Rabasco, a board member from Poland, because allowing people to go without them adds to the risk of in-person schooling. He said he wouldn’t send a child to school if people who haven’t been vaccinated could opt to go unmasked.

The district conducted an informal survey that found slightly more than half the residents of Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot favored a return to school without a mask mandate. But supporters questioned the numbers given that there was no mechanism to prevent people from registering their opinion more than once.

Amy Hediger, the assistant superintendent, said 82% of the district’s staff is vaccinated as well as many students ages 12 and up who are eligible for one of the vaccines approved on emergency basis by federal authorities.

The school board said, by a wide margin, that it wants the elementary schools to use masks because children who are not yet 12 have no access to vaccines. It added a provision to leave the mask policy in place until 60 days after a vaccine becomes available for younger people.

Healey said the district will monitor the COVID-19 situation regularly and will make recommendations and adjustments to its policy as needed as the year goes on.

The important thing, he said, is to “bring back all of our students” for “in-class, in-person learning” every day of the week.

Hediger said the district will do what it can to ensure social distancing. Healey said “good, quality air” is available in every classroom after the new focus on trying to keep air flowing inside buildings.

Officials said they see an uptick in the number of students planning to come back to school full time, a sign of growing confidence in their safety.

The RSU 16 school board met in-person for the first time in more than a year this week in the auditorium at Poland Regional High School. Screenshot from video

Board members and school officials worry, though, that strong feelings about masks could keep some students out of the classroom.

Anti-maskers may want to keep younger children home so they won’t have to wear a face covering while those supporting masks may be wary of sending older children to middle and high school settings where they may be exposed to COVID-19 more easily.

Sarah Rand, who has a son heading into first grade in Poland, told the board she “won’t sacrifice our children’s God-given right to breathe freely” and opposes any more “nodding along with the mad propaganda” from public health experts.

“Medical science is not an exact science,” added Heather Campbell, a Minot parent. “Putting a mask on our children is not going to do anything.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control, however, urges indoor masking in schools for everyone ages 2 and older, including students, teachers, staff and visitors, whether or not they have been vaccinated.

“They’re looking to us to follow their recommendation,” Rabasco said. “The science is overwhelming that masks stop people from getting sick.”

The debate on the issue that raged on the district’s Facebook page got so heated this week that authorities turned off commenting and hid existing posts from public view after reminding everyone that “our kids are watching us.”

Finding a way forward is going to be tough, all sides agreed.

“There’s no way that we’re not going to be divided,” said Angela Swenson, a Minot parent who opposes masks. “Our country is a wreck right now on all fronts.”

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