SABATTUS — A public forum on Regional School Unit 4’s universal masking policy drew more than 130 people Wednesday evening and was orderly despite the controversial topic.

The forum, which ran from 6:30 to 7:20 p.m., drew more than 30 people to Sabattus Primary School, while at least 100 more viewed the livestream on Zoom and YouTube.

At the start of the forum, the board and Superintendent Andrew Carlton shared a brief presentation regarding the board’s decision to switch from a color-coded COVID-19 mitigation policy to universal masking.

Carlton explained that the district switched to universal masking Sept. 27 so it could take advantage of quarantining exceptions allowed by the Maine Department of Education. According to Carlton, students and staff identified as close contacts can remain in school if the school is practicing universal masking.

From the start of school to Sept. 27, a total 254 students and staff had to quarantine for 10 days each because they were identified as close contacts, he said. In October, 394 students and staff were identified as close contacts.

“Because we are able to use the DOE exemption in regards to universal masking, all of the close contacts did not have to quarantine during school hours,” Carlton said. “So if you think about that for a second, just in the month of October, 394 staff and students for 10 days? That’s 3,940 school days that some of those students would have had to have missed.”

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Under the previous red, yellow and green system, if more than three cases of COVID-19 were identified in a school during a 10-day period, the school would move to remote learning.

If RSU 4 had remained under the previous district policies, students in Libby Tozier Primary School in Litchfield would have been in school 11 out of 21 days in September, 15 out of 19 in October, and none of the eight school days in November, Carlton said.

Kaitlyn Daley, left, of Sabattus raises questions Wednesday about masking policies at the Regional School Unit 4 board meeting in Sabattus. Daley has a 5-year-old son with a speech impediment in the district. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“One of the big goals from everything we heard last year is parents wanted their kids in school, as they should be, five days a week,” board Chairperson Robert English said. “And so one of our No. 1 goals this year was to do everything we could to safely keep our students in school five days a week … In order to do that, we’ve had to take the steps and progressions to where we are now.”

English, who represents Wales, later shared there have been no identified cases of in-school COVID-19 transmission.

After the presentation, the board allowed community members to comments or ask questions.

Kaitlyn Daley said her 5-year-old son, who has a speech impediment, struggles to communicate in school due to masks.

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“The first couple weeks of school when you did the light system was fantastic for him because he was able to see everybody’s mouth and learn from that,” she said. “Since he’s had to wear the mask, not only is he frustrated from not being understood, but he can’t see anything.”

A parent named Megan, who is from Sabattus, asked the board whether the masking policies will change after students ages 5 to 11 who wish to receive the vaccine are fully vaccinated.

English told attendees that the board is working to create a collaborative planning committee which will recommend masking policy changes to the board based on immunization rates and community transmission, among other factors.

“I’m very hopeful that at some time in the future, there will be significant changes to this policy and we won’t require masks for everybody, but we’re not there yet in my opinion,” English said.

Tiffany Hurd, a mother of three from Sabattus, told the board she was concerned that only one of her three children gets a mask break each day.

“It’s suffocating to think about it and it makes me sick,” she said. “My kids have sores on their face, they don’t feel well, they have stomach aches at the end of the day. It’s sick that you guys are doing this.”

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Several attendees clapped as she walked back to her seat.

Laura Clifford later stood up to second Hurd’s comments, telling the board that inconsistent policies throughout the district are “a lot to try to keep up with,” adding that her children who attend the middle school also do not receive mask breaks.

She also asked other members of the board to share their thoughts.

“As we’ve elected each of you from our different towns, is this just a chair and community conversation or can we hear from some of our board members?” she asked.

Robert Gayton, the vice chairperson who represents Sabattus, said he voted for and supported the stoplight masking policy that the district originally implemented.

“If the community is not following what we need to do to make that plan work, and brings cases of COVID into our school community, it’s going to fail, and that’s exactly in my opinion what happened,” Gayton said. “That plan failed.”

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Scott Fyfe, who represents Wales, said he strongly disagreed with Gayton’s statement.

“I could not disagree more with Mr. Gayton’s stance on the red, yellow and green plan that we had,” he said. “I do not think it was the community who failed that plan, I truly believe it was the board that failed. We only had that plan in place for two weeks; we didn’t give it a chance to work.”

He said Daley’s concerns for her son with a speech impediment “spoke volumes,” and cited an increase in office referrals and behavioral problems as a result of universal masking.

Kristy Ouellette, who represents Litchfield, shared that she is in favor of masking in order to keep kids in schools. On the fifth day of school, her first-grader started a 10-day quarantine because she was a close contact.

“For me, I had to take a pause and be like, OK, as much as I want to give parents a choice, universally masking guarantees that more kids get to stay in school,” she said. “And we’re talking about the emotional downturn of kids, and I say that all the time, and yes masking does contribute to that, but really it’s the disconnect from being away from school.”

Although changing the masking policy was not on the table Wednesday night, Hurd said she was glad that parents were able to voice their questions and concerns.

“It was refreshing to feel that, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with many of the community members who participated, the board was actively listening and appropriately responding to the concerns and questions presented,” Hurd said. “Everyone conducted themselves respectfully, and I think most of the community would agree that at the very least, we had a voice that was heard tonight.”

Meghan Toole, who has a 10-year-old daughter in the middle school, watched the forum online. Following the forum, she told the Sun Journal that she supports the board’s decision to implement universal masking.

“My daughter was a close contact at school two weeks ago and was able to continue to go to school and not have to do remote school,” she said. “If we didn’t have universal masking she, and many, many others, would be sent home for 10 days and not able to attend school.”

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