Regional School Unit 56 Director Larry Whittington of Dixfield, right, speaks Tuesday during the board meeting at Dirigo High School in Dixfield as Directors Bruce Ross of Dixfield, left, and Don Whittemore of Carthage listen. The board voted that face masks will be optional to start the school year. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

DIXFIELD — Following dozens of online calls from parents and angry words among some Regional School Unit 56 directors Tuesday evening, the board approved a mask-optional rule for students and staff.

Seven directors based their vote on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Department of Education’s recommended guidelines, which include indoor masking for everyone in schools but not making it mandatory. Three directors voted in opposition.

In favor were Natalie Sneller and Carl Lueders, both of Canton, Don Whittemore and Brad Dyer, both of Carthage, Barbara Chow and Bruce Ross, both of Dixfield. and Angela Cushman of Peru. Opposed were Larry Whittington, Tim Kelly and Angela Varnum, all of Dixfield.

Director Konstantin Aslanidi of Peru was absent, and Peru has one vacant seat since Joe Brissette completed his term in June.

The official weighted vote was 549-270, which is based on the populations of the four towns represented by the 12 directors.

After a heated debate about the facts of coronavirus transmission, especially between Dyer and Whittington, the board chose optional masking for everyone over two other suggestions presented by Superintendent Pam Doyen.

Her other options were masking for everyone and requiring it only when students are present and only when county levels of coronavirus transmission are at high or substantial levels.

Doyen and the board agreed to revisit the optional masking rule at every meeting for as long as needed.

“I think our distinction is in the wording between guidance and mandate,” Sneller said. “At this point, since we’re not under a civil state of emergency, the Maine CDC and DOE don’t have the authority to mandate mask-wearing and that’s why it’s a recommendation rather than a required rule.

“If the CDC mandated mask-wearing it wouldn’t matter what we voted, to be fair,” she said, if they mandated it the same way they are mandating quarantine rules.

Most parents calling in to the meeting via the internet said they wanted the board to let parents decide if their children would wear masks.

Mark Tripp, parent of a student at Dirigo High School in Dixfield, called in to say the “option to mask should be up to the parents”  because of students’ mental health.

Dirigo Elementary School teacher Trisha Fletcher speaks Tuesday at the Regional School Unit 56 board meeting at Dirigo High School in Dixfield. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

Tricia Fletcher, a teacher at Dirigo Elementary School in Peru, said if some students are masked and others aren’t in a classroom and someone gets COVID-19, all students will need to quarantine.

“If we do the recommendation that you can or cannot wear a mask, depending on what your family decides, you’re running the risk that if there is a case in your classroom that your child will have to quarantine,” she said.

Dyer said numerous times that masking does not stop transmission of COVID-19.

“We’re just taking mandates that we’re given that are factually unintelligent,” he said.

Whittington, the only director wearing a mask, disagreed.

“We wore masks last year and by June, (COVID-19) was on its way out. Masks work,” he said.


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