Top Stories

Houlton, East Grand, Region Two schools make masks mandatory for start of school year

HOULTON, Maine — Face coverings will once again be mandatory for all students and staff in both the Houlton and Danforth school districts, as well as the Region Two School of Applied Technology, at least to start the new school year.

With classes set to resume in just one week, the RSU 29 school board reversed its stand on masks following a 1.5-hour special board meeting Monday, Aug. 23. The district had voted Aug. 2 to have masks optional, but has changed gears with the number of COVID-19 cases soaring in Aroostook County and will now require masks.

Nearly 100 people attended the RSU 29 meeting in Houlton Monday, offering differing opinions on the mask issue. The majority of the school board, and a large number of those in the audience, wore face coverings during the meeting.

RSU 29 Superintendent Richard Lyons said he was recommending the change based on discussions with the Department of Education, meetings with superintendents of other school districts, and meetings with his administrative staff as well as the director of nursing.

“I ask the board to embrace the wearing of masks for our students and staff and to embrace pool (PCR) testing,” Lyons said.

He added that the administrative team at RSU 29, as well as the director of nursing, unanimously endorsed this decision.

“The majority of our counties are requiring masks in public places given transmission rates,” he said. “This (masks) will provide a seamless transition for us as our schools concluded the spring with masks for all. This district was one of the most successful in the state, given the attention to a safe environment.”

Last school year, RSU 29 was only closed two days around the Thanksgiving break because of COVID concerns. The high school, however, was closed for five days due to a lack of staffing brought about by the virus. Lyons said the district did such a good job remaining open because it was diligent in its masking efforts.

Some board members asked if there could be a compromise, where younger students were required to wear masks, but those in the high school were not. That idea was not endorsed by the board.

Sara Deveau, a representative from Littleton, stated she was opposed to requiring masks for children.

“The data shows us that school transmission is extremely low,” she said. “Our children are not at risk. I witnessed as a parent and an educator and it was really difficult to watch what we were doing to kids (by requiring masks).”

“I feel like if the masks are effective, for those who chose to wear them, shouldn’t that protect them from those that chose not to wear them?” said board member Christopher Cain, also of Littleton. “I feel like this should be a parent’s decision. Parents certainly know better than the government.”

Several parents stated they felt they should be the ones to decide what their children are required to do — not the school board. Many said their children struggled with learning and endured emotional duress during the previous school year. 

Others in the audience, however, were on the opposite side of the argument and applauded the board for doing everything they could to ensure schools remained open.

Ellen Bartlett, Houlton Regional Hospital’s infectious disease specialist and a parent of children in the district, strongly encouraged the board to mask up for the start of the school year.

“For the month of August, between Houlton Regional Hospital and Katahdin Valley Health Center, we have identified over 100 new cases,” Bartlett said. “That does not include people who had rapid tests at Walgreens or other facilities. Transmission is high right now in Aroostook County. Things are very different with the delta variant. It is far more contagious.”

Dr. Ted Sussman of Houlton also attended the meeting, stating that more than 95 percent of the new cases are with unvaccinated individuals.

“Masks are there to prevent transmission, not to prevent you from getting sick,” he said. “You are wearing masks to prevent your family, friends and neighbors from getting sick. Masks alone are not the answer. It is important that they are combined with vaccinations and social distancing.”

The RSU 29 board voted 10-3 to require masks. Board members Cain, Deveau and Tammy Goetsch opposed the motion.

“We understand that regardless of how the board votes, somebody will leave here disappointed tonight,” RSU 29 board chairman Fred Grant said. “Once that decision has been made, as families, we have to decide what that next step is. If you are unsatisfied with the decision, there are options available to you.”

Grant added the school board would likely revisit the mask policy at each subsequent board meeting and make any adjustments as needed.

The mask policy does not extend to the fall sports of soccer, golf, cross country or football as those activities take place outside. However, that policy could change if the Maine Principals’ Association decides masks are necessary.

SAD 14 (East Grand School) also announced Friday, Aug. 20, that masks will be mandatory for students and staff this fall, according to Peggy White, East Grand principal. 

In addition to masks, East Grand Community School is also maintaining three-foot social distancing as best it can, and will offer pool testing to all students and adults who would like to take part, White stated in a message to parents.

“The board will reevaluate whether to make masks optional at the monthly board meetings as community spread decreases,” White said. “Students will be eating breakfast in their classrooms and lunch in the cafeteria (three lunch periods). Once again we will start the year by encouraging teachers to get students outside for mask breaks and classroom activities.”

RSU 89 (Katahdin) Superintendent Marie Robinson said Tuesday that her district has decided to keep masks optional, at least for now. The SAD 70 board also voted to keep masks optional following a heated meeting Aug. 19.

RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook) had already decided to make masks mandatory for the start of the school year.

The Region Two School of Applied Technology is requiring masks for all students and staff to start the year. Students from Houlton, Hodgdon, East Grand, Southern Aroostook and Katahdin schools will be required to follow the mask requirements, regardless of what their home school district allows.

“We have decided to return to school with the same stipulations as when we left,” Director Ammie London said. “Masks (will be required) 100 percent of the time inside and on school busses. We have plexiglass in place, hand sanitizers filled, and they (students) have the expectation of distancing and keeping the classrooms as separated as possible.”

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your 4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.