Parents plead with RSU 29 board to remove face coverings in school

2 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — A vocal group of parents turned out for the December meeting of the RSU 29 school board Monday evening, seeking the removal of mandatory face coverings for students.

It marks the fourth straight month that COVID-19 discussions have dominated the educational board’s meeting. The board voted on the measure just last month, opting to keep masks mandatory.

Similar discussions have taken place at other school board meetings around The County, most recently at the SAD 1 (Presque Isle) board meeting Nov. 17. In all of those districts, masks have remained mandatory.

Two neighboring school districts — SAD 70 (Hodgdon) and RSU 89 (Katahdin) have optional mask policies — the only two in northern Maine with such a policy.

The requests to remove face coverings and reduce or remove quarantine procedures comes at a time when cases in Aroostook County are at an all-time high. According to the last data, Aroostook County had 685 active cases as of Dec. 3. That number is an increase of 77 cases in a single day.

As of Monday, Dec. 6, RSU 29, with 1,347 students, has 14 active cases in the district — eight at the Middle-High School; four at Houlton Southside; and two at Houlton Elementary School. Cumulatively, there have been 146 positive cases in the district this school year.

In comparison, SAD 70, with 486 students, has 10 active cases as of Dec. 3 and cumulatively, has had 66 cases.

Both districts have already far surpassed the total number of cases for all of last year.

Holly Hodgkin, director of  nursing for RSU 29, and Ellen Bartlett, infection preventionist at Houlton Regional Hospital, both encouraged the board not to abandon its face covering policy considering how rampant COVID-19 is in the area.

“It has been a really busy month for us,” Hodgkin said. “The community is on fire.”

“November has been our busiest month to date,” Bartlett added. “Between tests run at our hospital and Katahdin Valley Health Center we identified 359 positive cases. That is the most we have seen to date.”

Houlton Regional Hospital had 123 positive cases identified by its laboratory for November. The previous high total was 63 positive cases in August.

Tensions flared at times during the public speaking portion of the meeting, with some participants shouting outbursts of “They don’t work” and “Take them off!” in regards to the face coverings.

Things became so heated that board Chairman Fred Grant had to interrupt the public comments session to remind people that outbursts would not be tolerated.

David Carpenter of Littleton was one of the people asking the board to remove its mandatory mask policy. Carpenter has spoken at each of the past four board meetings seeking the same result. 

“All I ask the school board is to vote to let the masks be optional,” Carpenter said. “If a parent chooses for their child to wear a mask, let them wear a mask. If I chose not to have my children wear a mask, they shouldn’t have to. This is a free country.”

He also said that if a parent was “scared” their child would be at a greater risk of exposure, they could wear two masks and be equally protected.

“These things right here (mask) dehumanize us,” Sam Henderson of Houlton said. “I cannot see someone’s facial expression. As we continue to wear these, we are dehumanizing populations and we are doing it to our children. It’s getting ridiculous.”

Other parents asked the district to stop pushing vaccinations and pool testing on their children, saying it should be the parents’ responsibility to make that decision.

“I hope the COVID vaccine is not being pushed on our children here at school,” Vanessa McCausland of Littleton said. “I know of several children who have also gone home upset because teachers are pushing pool testing. We teach our children not to give in to peer pressure, so please do not pressure our children into thinking they need these products (vaccination) being used under emergency use authorization.”

Other parents said that something more needs to be done for those students who have to quarantine, as their education is suffering. 

“One of my children has had to quarantine five times already,” Sarah Berthiaume of New Limerick  said. “We are feeling the impact (in their education).”

The district currently has 95 students in quarantine due to being a close contact. 

Students can be deemed “close contacts” if they were within six feet of someone who tested positive for 15 minutes or more. The Maine CDC has established exceptions to their 10-day quarantine guidelines that have helped more students and staff remain in school. This includes exceptions for anyone fully vaccinated for two weeks or more after their final shot and students enrolled in pool testing.

The RSU 29 board took no action on altering its face coverings policy.