Regional School Unit 56 Director Brad Dyer of Carthage, second from right, speaks Tuesday at the board meeting at Dirigo High School in Dixfield. From left are Chairman Barbara Chow of Dixfield, Superintendent Pam Doyen, and Directors Tim Kelly of Dixfield, Angela Cushman of Peru, Dyer and Donald Whittemore of Carthage. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

DIXFIELD — With a third of students at two schools infected or quarantined because of COVID-19, directors of Regional School Unit 56 voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to require masking for all students when the rate of transmission in Oxford County is deemed by state officials as substantial or high.

The decision came after Superintendent Pam Doyen told the board that one third of students at Dirigo Elementary School in Peru and one third of those at T.W. Kelly Dirigo Middle School in Dixfield were either infected or in quarantine because of close contact with an infected person.

“Unlike last year where we had minimal in-school transmission, we’re seeing and the (Center for Disease Control) is calling most of this transmission in-school transmission,” Doyen said.

The CDC notified Doyen on Monday of the elementary school’s “outbreak status,” she said.

There are 122 students out at the elementary school because of COVID-19, Doyen said. “Twelve students have tested positive for the virus and 110 students are in quarantine because they were considered close contacts of the 12, meaning they were within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes at a time. Five staff members also tested positive at the elementary school, she said.

At Dirigo Middle School seven students tested positive for COVID-19, with five of them from community transmission, Doyen said. There were 60 close contacts, “so a total of 67 students are out at Dirigo Middle School,” she said.

The middle school also has a staff member who tested positive, which was from community and not school contact, she said.

There are no coronavirus cases at Dirigo High School in Dixfield.

Doyen asked the board to consider how to keep students in school with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“It is not in our best interest to have a third of the elementary students out, or a third of the middle school students out,” she said.

According to Gov. Janet Mills office, “Per guidance from the U.S. CDC, persons in counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 community transmission are advised to wear face coverings in public indoor settings.

Fifteen out of Maine’s 16 counties Wednesday were considered to have a high level of community transmission, meaning that the seven-day total of new cases per 100,000 residents of each county exceeded 100. Oxford County has not dipped below a substantial or high level of transmission for over a month.

The district’s team studying COVID-19 practices recommended to either have students in grades prekindergarten to 12 mask when Oxford County has a substantial or high rate of transmission, or have them mask at all times during the pandemic, Doyen said.

“It is not based on anything other than the fact that we need to keep these students in our schools, where we are trained to teach them, and where they can learn,” Doyen said. “We have situations already at the middle school and at the elementary school where students are missing, day after day of education.”

The weighted vote for mandatory masking during substantial or high rates of transmission was 769-141. The votes of the 11 directors are weighted according to the populations of the towns they represent, Dixfield, Peru, Canton and Carthage.

The nine directors voting in favor of the motion were Barbara Chow, Bruce Ross, Angela Varnum, Tim Kelly and Larry Whittington, all of Dixfield, Natalie Sneller and Carl Lueders, both of Canton, Don Whittemore of Carthage and Konstantin Aslanidi of Peru.

Voting against it were Angela Cushman of Peru and Brad Dyer of Carthage.

Doyen said the district will institute pooled testing for coronavirus at the schools to lessen the number of students who need to quarantine.

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