JAY — Regional School Unit 73 directors Thursday approved holding a special board meeting Aug. 19 regarding mask wearing in Spruce Mountain schools.

Let’s not rush on this, digest the information presented tonight; more information should be coming, Board Chairman Robert Staples said.

Prior to the vote a dozen teachers, parents and students spoke on the issue. A few wanted masks to be worn, though more said masks don’t work and create other issues.

Heather Ahern Huish, an English teacher at the high school said she is hopeful about returning to the classroom. Students do much better with her in the room with them, she noted. Huish, like many of her colleagues is immunosuppressed.

“I am here tonight to speak for the immunosuppressed students and staff within the RSU73 district,” she said. “We are a population that is at huge risk. Specifically, even with both doses of the COVID vaccine, we are 485 times more likely to be hospitalized with severe illness or to die. This data point comes from Johns Hopkins Medical Center. That data point doesn’t even cover the legions of students who are at risk because they haven’t aged into vaccine eligibility yet.”

Huish asked the board to create a policy to designate “mask zones” within schools so that immunosuppressed students and staff could be as safe as others within school buildings.

Huish shared information on the legal aspects of the immunosuppressed and the Americans with Disabilities Act:

“From the Louisiana State University Law School’s brief on the topic of immunosuppressed workers in workplaces where they could encounter communicable diseases: “The problems arise when the immunosuppressed person is infected with an agent that is traceable to the workplace. This could be a common communicable disease such as chicken pox, or an unusual infection that is acquired because of the immunosuppression. Most employees are in workplaces that do not pose an increased risk of infection. The ADA prevents immunosuppressed workers from being excluded from such workplaces because of their general increased risk of infection. The employer must protect such employees from known risks posed by fellow employees or customers, but this protection must interfere as little as possible with the employee’s opportunities in the company.”

The World Health Organization is currently tracking thirteen variants, Huish noted.  In other words, COVID and its multitudinous variants are not going anywhere, she added before requesting mask zones be designated within the district.

“Not having to wear a mask really means a lot,” incoming junior Joel Thornton said. “The 2020/21 school year was nothing but a year full of disappointment, stress and inconsistency.”

Fall sports being taken away, not being able to see friends and constantly moving between remote and hybrid models were struggles for him. Going back to a somewhat normal school year is needed, Thornton said.

“I am a junior and I haven’t experienced one full year of high school,” he continued. “Masks should be optional. It’s going to be hard to force kids who haven’t been vaccinated to wear a mask all day long. We’re kids, high schoolers.”

Students need to experience every moment to the best instead of stressing about COVID, masks and social distancing, Thornton said.

It’s okay if you want to wear a mask but it should also be okay if you don’t want to wear one, Bobby Jo Blodgett of Jay said. Wearing a mask tells students you’re afraid of them, she noted.

“I want my children to have a choice,” Blodgett said. “When you take that choice away, you take their well-being away too.”

Some educators are afraid to speak, are afraid for their jobs or been shamed by other educators, Roger Moulton of Livermore Falls said.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure we have an open discussion with all,” Staples responded.

Cea Jay Pitcher of Livermore said his son developed extreme acne because of wearing masks.

“These kids need to go back to their normal lives,” he noted. “To segregate kids, to say you have a designated mask area what’s the point of having masks in the first place if you are going to allow them to take them off at one point but wear them at this place? That’s just ludicrous.”

Children learn by looking at other’s facial expressions, John Benedetto, a Livermore Falls High School graduate and senior process engineer, said. Looking at the science, the masks aren’t supported, don’t work, he noted. Countries and other states with strict lockdowns are seeing rapid spread, he added.

It may not be long before the state mandates masks, elementary teacher and parent Kelly Lake said. She supports Superintendent Scott Albert who strongly recommends masking.

“My kids are hoping that they don’t have to wear a mask,” Lake said. “Kids do what they’re told. I’ve heard teachers say, ‘kids don’t mind wearing masks.’ I’m here to tell you that’s not true. That’s not true. We need to go back to normal until we’re told what to do and have no choice.”

“I don’t want my little brothers growing up wearing masks,” James Regal, who will be in the sixth grade this year, said. “It’s not normal.”

One man came to the middle school to share his thoughts because remote participation wasn’t possible.

“I absolutely believe if you don’t mandate masks, we’re not looking out for our children’s best interests,” he said. He feels people who got COVID early were misdiagnosed and shared his experience of watching his seven-year-old, very-active child becoming lethargic. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and strep throat but still has trouble breathing in some situations.

“You all need to grow up,” he continued. “You are literally being negligent parents.”

A masking survey within the district had 940 responses in the following categories:

• 589 Parent/Caregivers

• 69 Students

• 233 Staff

• 63 Community members

Why were teachers allowed to vote twice, Pitcher asked.

If teachers are also parents, they have two roles and could respond in each, Albert replied.

Results showed:

• 169 want mandatory masking for all students and staff

• 140 want mandatory masking for any unvaccinated students or staff

• 580 want optional masking for all students and staff

• 112 want optional masking for only vaccinated students and staff (Some of these also answered about mandatory masking for any unvaccinated person)

District nurses and its physician, Dr. Knapp, are in agreement to strongly recommend but not mandate masking, Albert said. Maine CDC recommends districts follow the US CDC recommendation that all wear a mask while indoors in schools with implementation up to the school board, he noted.

“The goal is to have school five days a week,” Albert said. “The only remote option is the (WMRSC Remote) Academy.”

Transportation falls under federal guidelines, so masks will be required on buses and vans, Albert said. Parents may transport their children if they choose, he added.

“The goal is to get every kid back in school,” Albert said.

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