FARMINGTON — The Mt. Blue board of directors approved an adjustment to the district’s mask mandate that will require vaccinated students in grades 9-12 to wear either a mask or face shield while indoors.

The proposal was approved in a 7-5 vote during the Tuesday, Aug. 10, board meeting.

Alongside this change, all students in grades pre-K through eight and unvaccinated students in grades nine-12 are also required to wear a mask indoors. Vaccinated high schoolers will have their choice, but must wear either a mask or shield. This policy falls in line with the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s recommendation that all students and staff “regardless of vaccination status or community transmission level” wear a mask.

This adjustment is a departure from the proposal approved at the board’s July 27 meeting that allowed vaccinated students in grades nine through 12 to forgo mask wearing.

While masking is a requirement for unvaccinated students, Superintendent Christian Elkington emphasized multiple times that students will be following an “honor system.”

“There’s not going to be a vaccination police; we are not going to be asking kids if they have been vaccinated in grades nine-12,” Elkington said. “We are not looking to intrude in that way nor do we have the right to do that.”

This policy ignited ample discussion during public comment and among board members before the vote.

During public comment, Director Jesse Sillanpaa spoke at the podium as a member of the public rather than a director and raised concerns with masking requirements.

Sillanpaa was concerned about how there was “not a democratic debate on the return to schools with face masks.”

He said that masking is a hindrance to students because it causes “anxiety and other mental health disorders.”

Sillanpaa also said that “face masks have been proven in a number of studies, whether people believe me or not, to be ineffective toward the spread of COVID-19” and that “vaccines have been proven to be ineffective against the new variants, although more contagious, they are less lethal than the original COVID-19 disease.”

He did not state specifically where he got this information from, but did say that this information can be found “online.”

The Maine CDC states that wearing masks is effective “because it helps contain respiratory droplets” and is “one of the most significant, effective, and easiest ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention also states that masks protect the wearer by helping “reduce inhalation of these droplets.”

Sillanpaa said that as a result of the 2021-22 school year masking mandate, he and his wife are considering “pulling our kids from our district.”

More so, Sillanpaa “would urge any parent in this district that has any concerns with (the mask mandate) to pull their child from this district.”

Sillanpaa, who said he has been on the board for three years, left the meeting following public comment and did not vote on the proposal as a board member.

During his statement, Sillanpaa raised his voice when Director Scott Erb appeared to be shaking his head left to right in response to Sillanpaa’s comments.

“Do not laugh at me Scott, I am not in the mood to be laughed at,” Sillanpaa yelled.

Following his statement, Board Chair Carol Coles apologized to Sillanpaa “if you felt members of the board did not treat you with the respect you deserve.”

Coles did not comment on Sillanpaa’s unsubstantiated claims, but thanked him for his “heartfelt” comments.

“We will take them into careful consideration as we deliberate the status of how our children will return to school,” Coles said. “… I hope you continue on our board.”

During discussion that preceded the vote, directors offered their opinions on the proposal, both for and against masking requirements.

Director Kirk Doyle said that “the risks that we’re mitigating” by requiring students wear a mask or shield are not “worth the potential damage that we have on the other side at this point.”

Doyle said the board should be “strongly encouraging (masking), requesting it, but then leaving it to the individual families to make the decision that is best for them and knowing that we don’t put a tremendous burden on our community.”

Doyle also requested that the vote be delayed because not all members of the board were present.

The board went through with the vote, but Elkington said that Doyle can request to the chair that a vote be put on the next agenda. It is unclear at this time if Coles will extend this decision to the next board meeting.

Speaking in favor of masking, board of directors Vice Chair Debbie Smith said “we need to look at what is best for all children.

“Parents can make that choice, and that’s fine for their child, but they’re only making that for their child or their children,” Smith said. “The board has to look at it for all children, and that’s what’s making the difference for me.”

Director Gloria McGraw also raised the point that the board has received “letters from parents who said we should mandate masks.”

Coles also advocated for the proposal and said that “certain accommodations” can be made for a child if masking is detrimental for them.

“I don’t think the kids mind the masks as much as we think they do,” Coles added.

Director Cheriann Harrison, who voted against the masking mandate, said that she is “concerned about battling the mental health crisis that has been going on for years along with the COVID pandemic.

“We do have parents that are frustrated,” Harrison noted. “(This conflict) creates a wall between the students and the school and I don’t want to put those barriers up between the students and the school.

“I don’t know what the right answer is here,” Harrison said. “I don’t think anybody does.”

Director J. Wayne Kinney voted in favor of the masking mandate because he has to “rely on people who have training in the field they’ve got in order to make decisions.”

He said that he based his decision off of the guidance of “health professionals living this” such as Maine CDC officials and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert.

Director Lisa Laflin asked “what’s the trigger to revisit this conversation” and potentially go “back to the original policy of last week?”

Elkington said that this policy might be adjusted again in the near future, depending on what guidelines are released by the Maine CDC as transmission rates change in the county.

“I expect in two weeks we’ll be coming back with some other information,” Elkington said.

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