Regional School Unit 38 Superintendent Jay Charette at Monday night’s emergency school board meeting with Chairperson Cathy Jacobs to his right and member David Twitchell to his left. The board held the emergency meeting to discuss overturning the previous mask policy. The district decided to reverse their previous ruling and mandate masks for students and staff. Screenshot from Zoom

READFIELD — Less than a week after it voted only to strongly encourage masks, the Regional School Unit 38 school board reversed course and will require them for all students and staff.

An emergency meeting was called for Monday night by the district to “review and discuss health and safety procedures” approved at last Tuesday’s board meeting, after officials received “hundreds” of emails in response to the decision. Monday night, the Maranacook Community High School bleachers were packed with community members and, at the height of the meeting, 242 people listened in on the livestreamed Zoom meeting.

Going into the school year, MCHS senior Emily Hayes said she would “rather go to school with a mask duct taped” on her face, then to miss out on another year “because people have decided wearing a mask is too inconvenient for them.”

Hayes was joined by classmate Cassie McCormick on Monday night, who called the school board of directors disappointing for letting their politics enter the discussion about children. Sophomore Hayden Freeman stepped up to the podium and urged the board to “not set them (students) up to fail.”

Among those upset were students and teachers, the people who would be impacted by the lack of mask mandate. Many shared their thoughts after the decision was made and continued the discussion Monday night.

After hearing from a majority of people who encouraged a mask mandate, including medical professionals in the area, teachers, students and parents, the board voted 8-3 to reverse its decision and mandate masks. The decision will be reconsidered at each board meeting and use factors such as community transmission rates and RSU 38’s own COVID-19 data.

“When a decision is made, people call that democracy and sometimes they are made and we don’t have all the information,” board member Dane Wing said. “When it becomes available, take ourselves out of tunnel vision … the goal is to keep kids in school.”

Having a schoolwide mask mandate, coupled with 3 feet of social distancing, is one of the exceptions to students and staff members having to quarantine for 10 days. Other exceptions include being vaccinated, having COVID-19 within a 90-day period and pool testing.

The district decided to participate in pool testing last week on the suggestion of Wing in a compromise for “parent-choice masking.” RSU 38 Superintendent Jay Charette announced Monday night pool testing wouldn’t immediately be available for students, and with that news, board members who previously voted against a mask mandate, voted for it in attempt to shorten quarantine time.

Pool testing is up to parents to opt their child in, and is encouraged even for vaccinated students.

“When I did the application after last meeting, they said to get the application in and to get in line,” Charette said. “Lots of schools have decided to do pool testing, so it’s going to take a little time (to roll out). The earliest prognosis is by the end of September,” to have all of the permission slips back.

Charette updated the community on the school district’s COVID-19 statistics and said he had new numbers from the data he shared last week.

Overall, from November to June, there were 86 cases among the students and five among staff members. The district started tracking the number of students and staff who came in “close contact” of a positive COVID-19 case in November and from that point in time, 1,286 students and 108 staff members were in close contact.

Though a majority of community members who attended the meeting Monday were in favor of a mask mandate, the majority of people who attended last Tuesday’s meeting, were not. Many of those who spoke during public comment against the mandate said it should be a “parent’s decision,” going against the recommendation by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. Some steered into the community aspect.

“We are sending the wrong message, not to teach the youth to follow the CDC guidelines because of the loud voices in the audience,” one parent with two children in the district said. Amanda Philbrook attended the meeting last week and said again on Monday night “vaccination status should never come into play,” suggesting it’s a violation of privacy.

Dennis Ruffing, a new member of the Regional School Unit 38 board of directors, is concerned “masks will never come off.” The district held an emergency meeting Monday to discuss overturning previous masking policy. The district decided to reverse their previous ruling and mandate masks for students and staff. Provided screenshots

Board members Dennis Ruffing, Keltie Beaudoin and Shawn Roderick expressed their opposition in students wearing masks. The three directors voted against the mask mandate last week and this week.

Roderick asked the board, “what’s different this year?” in regards to masking. Beaudoin wondered when masking would “come to an end,” and Ruffing argued students would “not be in school full time,” this year.

“For member Roderick, you asked what changed, and we know vaccines weren’t available last year. They changed the game, and we hope they work,” said community member, Patricia Poulin. “Member from Wayne (Beaudoin), I hope, I hope my elementary student will be eligible for vaccination. … For member Ruffing, students won’t be in school full time, I agree, but I urge you to do everything you can to minimize that and keep them (the students) in.”

Chairperson Cathy Jacobs reversed her decision too. Though she strongly thinks masking is a “parent’s choice,” she said since Kennebec County is in “the red” and a medical professional at the meeting said in the area there at “at least” five COVID-19 cases in their office at the moment.

The board of directors who voted against the mask mandate on Aug. 25 were Ruffing, Wing, Jacobs, Tyler Dunn, Rebecca Lambert, Roderick and Beaudoin. Board members Patti Gordon and Kim Bowie could not make Monday’s meeting but wrote letters to the board in support of the mandate.

Next board meeting will be Oct. 6 and the board of directors will review the mask mandate.

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