Teacher Steve DeAngelis speaks Tuesday night to the Regional School Unit 38 Board of Directors urging them to consider universal masking. The board voted to “strongly recommend” masking but ultimately leave the decision up to parents.  Emily Duggan/Kennebec Journal

READFIELD — Science teacher Steve DeAngelis thought this school year would be “normal” with Regional School Unit 38 students back in school, full time, without masks, like things were before the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, he spent time Tuesday night urging the school board to mandate masks for everyone, contrary to what he thought would be the case for this academic year. DeAngelis does not like to wear masks, but told the school board he believes “masks greatly increase the likelihood of students being in school.”

But the school board decided to go in a different direction — to “strongly recommend” masks to students, staff and teachers and to leave the responsibility to parents. The 7 to 6 vote was contrary to Superintendent Jay Charette’s recommendation of universal masking. The school board did agree to participate in pool testing.

The masking decision left Laurel Parker, an emergency medicine physician, discouraged. She spoke Tuesday night about her experience of tending to patients with COVID-19. Parker, who has two young children in the district, said wearing masks is a “simple thing we can do.”

“Wearing masks has few downsides,” she told the audience. “It only has the potential to keep kids and the community safe.”

The majority of parents at Tuesday’s meeting spoke against masks, with one calling it “dehumanizing.” Another, Travis Robbin, said his two 6- and 8-year-old daughters were homeschooled last year so they would not have to wear a mask. He spoke about wanting this year to be different for them.

“I was emotional my daughters decided to stay home instead of seeing their friends every day,” Robbin said.

While masks won’t be required in school, students will have to wear them on buses.

Visitors will be allowed in the school and will be encouraged to wear a mask, and the district will not offer a remote option, only on a per-basis situation.

Though RSU 38’s decision does not violate state or Center for Disease Control guidelines, universal masking has been strongly encouraged for everyone indoors. Universal masking eliminates the requirement for close contacts to quarantine. The standard time to quarantine is 10 days and a negative test has to be shown at the end of the period.

Charette shared with the audience that 545 students quarantined last year between the time period of Dec. 4, 2020, to June 4, 2021. In the same period of time, 85 students contracted COVID-19, along with five teachers or staff members.

“Some of the students here were hit multiple times,” he said of quarantining. “With the total of the student population, that’s almost 50%. A great number were quarantined December through June and missed one to 10 days.”

Charette and board members made a point to say the plan now can change and might not be the same a month from now. The board plans to reconsider the decisions on a monthly basis.

On the topic of assigned seating in the cafeteria, some parents in the audience were upset over the back-to-school plan asking students to “consider their vaccine status when selecting where to eat.” Charette said it was a suggestion and said he will take it out of the plan.

He also said he will update the board with monthly statistics and data.

“We are going to be clear and transparent on the information and will have no surprises,” Charette said. “We want everything to be out there and accessible to everyone.”

Dennis Ruffing, a member of the RSU 38 school board, said revealing vaccine status among students “could lead to segregation” and said he had not heard “any actual facts brought forward” in the discussion over the back-to-school plan.

Member Patty Gordon refuted his claim and offered him “both sides” of research she printed out and brought with her to the meeting. She said in her decision, she is looking at transmission rates and what schools around the area are choosing to do. Masking has been scientifically proven by the CDC to act as a layer to protect people from coronavirus particles along with reducing transmission of the virus in the classroom.

The Augusta Public Schools, RSU 12, Maine School Administrative District 11, Winthrop and RSU 2 have all decided to mandate masks. RSU 38 includes Readfield, Wayne, Manchester and Mount Vernon.

Board members who voted against the mask mandate were Ruffing, Dane Wing, Chairperson Cathy Jacobs, Tyler Dunn, Rebecca Lambert, Shawn Roderick and Keltie Beaudoin. In favor were Gordon, Melissa Tobin, Kim Bowie, David Twitchell, David Guillemette and Betty Morrell.

DeAngelis’s classroom may not be back to normal just yet, but he said he views wearing masks as a “patriotic thing to do.”

“Patriots do what’s best for their country and fellow citizens,” he said. “That makes wearing a mask with my students a patriotic thing to do.”

The current plan will be reviewed at the next board meeting on Sept. 1.

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