RSU 39 school board votes in favor of optional masking

2 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Students and staff at RSU 39 schools will no longer be required to wear masks starting March 7.

The RSU 39 school board voted unanimously Wednesday, March 2, to transition from required to optional masking at the start of the next week.

Prior to the vote, Superintendent Tim Doak recommended a Monday start date to give families and staff time to hear the news and transition into the new guidelines. He said that while many folks are ready to ditch the masks, others might opt to still wear one for medical or personal reasons.

Doak cited record low case numbers in the district, low hospitalizations in the Caribou region and a higher vaccination rate as reasons why the district can safely remove its mask mandate.

“We had zero cases today and we’ve only had six cases since returning [from February break]. Our cases have been dropping tremendously,” Doak said.

RSU 39 will join other school districts in Aroostook — including those in Presque Isle, Mars Hill and Fort Fairfield — who have voted in favor of optional masking. Based on conversations with other superintendents, Doak said he expected more schools in Aroostook to overturn their mandates.

Like Caribou schools, Fort Fairfield’s SAD 20 district will go optional on March 7. SAD 1’s rules changed one day after the school board’s emergency vote on Feb 28, while SAD 42 in Mars Hill switched to optional on March 2.

Parents who spoke during the RSU 39 meeting advocated for optional masking to start immediately on March 3 rather than wait for the upcoming school week.

“It should have been the parents’ decision from the beginning,” said Cheri Hayes, whose two children attend Caribou Community School. “Please let it be known that our family does not consent to mask use for our children any longer.”

Abel Hayes, a CCS student, also said he did not want to wear a mask any longer.

“Masks should be optional because some people will want to wear one and some people won’t,” he said.

Caribou resident Kylie Morrell, who also has two children attending CCS, questioned whether school board members had listened “to two sides or one” when previously voting on mandatory masks. She said that masks have had a negative impact on her children’s well-being.

“I do not need calls or emails from school administrators telling me that my son isn’t wearing his mask properly,” Morrell said. “I know he doesn’t wear his mask properly. He has asthma, which has not been addressed the entire time that masks have been required.”

While schools are no longer required to contact trace, the current Standard Operating Procedure from the Maine CDC requires that all students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 quarantine for at least five days if they are unvaccinated or if they are vaccinated but develop symptoms. Everyone who returns to school after quarantine must wear a mask for five days.

That guideline replaces the former CDC requirement that unvaccinated people quarantine for 10 days, said school nurse Katrina Coffin.

RSU 39 will continue its pooled testing program. Students who are active participants in pooled testing do not have to quarantine. The only exceptions are students who test positive soon after they sign up for pooled testing.

“If a student is exposed on Sunday and they test positive on Monday when they start pooled testing, they would still have to be quarantined,” Coffin said.

Coffin noted that she expects to see updated guidelines in the coming week, which could change the rules regarding quarantines. 

School board member Jan Tompkins said that although parents have had varying opinions on when the district should switch to optional masks, a March 7 start is the best way to consider them all.

“I think of the letters we got from parents begging us to keep masks universal. If we say that [optional masking] starts tomorrow, they’re terrified for their kids tomorrow,” Tompkins said. “Do I think parents have the right to choose for their own kids? Absolutely. But I think it’s fair to say March 7.”

Doak noted that if a COVID-19 outbreak were to occur at either school or if local cases rise significantly, the board might reconsider the optional mask policy.

The next RSU 39 school board meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, at the Caribou Performing Arts Center. The full March 2 meeting can be viewed on the district’s YouTube channel.