A growing number of Maine school districts are dropping or reconsidering indoor masking mandates, in some cases disregarding federal and state recommendations that continue to advise mask-wearing.

Districts based in Chelsea, China and Oakland are saying farewell to face coverings. School districts in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, Freeport and Lewiston have not nixed mandates yet, but are slated to reconsider policies at school board meetings in the coming days.

Teacher Kellie Beres, left, works with Jossolyn Riccardo, a junior at Old Orchard Beach High School, during an anatomy and physiology class on Feb. 8. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And many others are awaiting clarity or updated guidance from state health officials.

“We’re kind of all in a holding pattern right now, just waiting,” York Superintendent Lou Goscinski said, adding that he remains committed to following the guidelines from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state Department of Education. 

“There is a lot of pressure to make masks optional,” Goscinski said. He predicted that more schools will begin to diverge from the guidelines if the state CDC maintains its current recommendation of mandatory masking. 

A new framework for calculating COVID-19 risk that focuses less on case counts and more on hospital burdens was presented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. The new approach recommends indoor masking in areas with significant COVID-19 risk, but says masks can come off in regions with low to medium risk. Under these new guidelines the majority of Americans – around 70 percent – can stop masking indoors.


But that is not the case in Maine. Most of the state remains in a high risk area under the federal standards, meaning that U.S. CDC guidance recommends masks indoors, including in schools. As of Monday afternoon, only Kennebec, Somerset and Waldo counties made it into medium territory where masks are only recommended for certain at-risk groups. The rest of Maine, home to around 84 percent of the state’s population, is a high-risk area for COVID-19, according to the U.S. CDC.

It is unclear, however, whether the new federal recommendations accurately reflect how much COVID is spreading in Maine and straining hospital capacity.

As recently as late January, Maine had a massive backlog of positive COVID-19 tests to process – 56,000 as of Jan. 26 – because the state was overwhelmed during the peak of the omicron wave. Efforts in recent weeks to clear that backlog resulted in artificially raised case counts, and the state still has thousands of tests to process. Those case counts were factored into Maine’s risk levels, creating additional confusion about the latest guidelines.

Even as schools seem ready to go mask-optional, some pediatricians say it’s not time.

“The goal is to keep schools open, decrease the amount of absences for students and staff,” said Dr. Sydney Sewall, an Augusta pediatrician.

“Are masks perfect? No. But do they add a layer of protection? Yes,” he said.


Sewall said masking remains an important preventive measure, especially for younger groups where vaccination rates remain low. According to the state CDC, 38 percent of children 5-11 are fully vaccinated and 68 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds are vaccinated.

“They really do decrease the spread of COVID,” he said.

Other public health officials agree with Sewall. In an open letter published Feb. 9, a group of public health experts and practitioners from Columbia University wrote that “calls to end mask mandates in schools are uninformed.”

Despite such warnings, school mask mandates are ending across the United States.

New York’s school mask mandate will sunset on Wednesday. March 12 will mark the beginning of optional masking in California, Washington and Oregon, according to reporting by ABC News. New Jersey, Massachusetts and Delaware also are on the growing list of states shifting away from mandatory masking.

While Maine does not have an official statewide mandate, most schools have followed the state’s recommendations.



Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is among the districts that are awaiting direction from the Maine CDC and the Maine Department of Education.

Neither agency answered questions from the Press Herald on Monday about the federal guidelines and potential updates to state guidelines.

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said Monday that the agency is reviewing the revised federal guidelines, especially as it relates to rules on masking recommendations for schools. The agency had said last month that it planned to reassess masking guidelines after watching to see if cases climbed after last week’s school vacation.

It wasn’t clear Monday how soon state officials would clarify guidelines. “I’m sure between myself and my colleagues at CDC we’ll share updates once we have them,” said Marcus Mrowka, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.

Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said the results of pooled testing show very little COVID in the school community, which is one of the reasons the district voted 7-2 Monday night to implement optional masking no later than March 14. The decision followed three hours of discussion and came with a caveat. Langlais has the authority to accelerate or delay the move to optional masking.

Students at Old Orchard Beach High School feel it is time for optional masking, said Santino Perrone, the student representative to the school board.  

“Masking has tired people out and that’s why students in the high school are ready to move on to making them optional and treating this more like the flu while remaining cautious,” he said.  

Sun Journal Staff Writer Vanessa Paolella contributed to this report.

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