DIXFIELD — Directors of Regional School Unit 56 voted 9-2 Tuesday night to continue requiring masks be worn by everyone in the district’s three schools in Oxford County, which has a high transmission rate of COVID-19.

“It’s difficult because it’s not about do we believe in masks or do we not believe in masks or do we believe in COVID or not,” Superintendent Pam Doyen said. “We have the standard operating procedures that we have to follow.”

According to the maine.gov website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that people in counties with substantial or high levels of community transmission wear face coverings in public indoor settings. Maine’s 16 counties have high levels of community transmission, the website shows.

Doyen said to keep students in school and avoid students and staff from having to quarantine from infection or because they’ve been in close contact with someone with the infection, the district’s COVID-19 team studying best practices recommends RSU 56 “continue with universal masking when Oxford County is in substantial or high transmission rates.”

“Because we want to make sure our goal is to keep kids in school,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting at Dirigo High School, dozens of parents speaking in person or online were opposed to mandatory face coverings, saying they should be optional as directors approved Aug. 24.

After the first two weeks of classes, the board voted Sept. 15 to require them when Oxford County reached high levels of virus transmission. Doyen said then that a third of students at Dirigo Elementary School in Peru and a 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.

On Tuesday, Director Brad Dyer of Carthage spoke in opposition to continuing the mandate.

“The board, the teachers and everybody trying so hard to navigate this, we’ve been put in a very impossible position,” he said. “We are not supposed to apply common sense to the situation at all. There is no logic, there is no common sense” to government guidelines for COVID-19.

He moved to make masks optional, but it failed to pass because Angela Cusman of Peru was the only other director to vote for it.

Voting against the motion were Chairman Barbara Chow, Angela Varnum, Bruce Ross, Larry Whittington and Tim Kelly, all of Dixfield, Konstantin Aslanidi of Peru, Natalie Sneller and Carl Lueders, both of Canton, and Donald Whittemore of Carthage.

Sneller reminded the board that “any decision we make has consequences,” adding that having students in and out of school is not productive. “We need to do what we can to keep our kids in school as much as we can.”

Doyen provided information on COVID-19 cases and those in quarantine at the high and middle schools, nd Dirigo Elementary School in Peru. In the first two weeks of classes 189 students were not attending in person because they either had the infection or were close contacts with someone who did. From Sept. 15 to 28, after masks were mandated, 22 students were not attending class because of coronavirus infections or quarantines, she said.

“At Dirigo High School, if we had not gone with masking, we would have had 92 identified as close contacts” in the past two weeks,” she said. “Only students who are vaccinated would not have needed to quarantine.

“We have about a 45 to 49 percent vaccination rate for students at this time,” Doyen said, “therefore approximately 45 students would have been placed in quarantine.”

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