On Feb. 28, Regional School Unit 12 students and staff returned to their schools with the option to not wear a mask.
Superintendent Howie Tuttle reported in a Feb. 20 letter to the RSU 12 community that the district board of directors voted to allow optional masking in RSU 12 schools, should the standard operating procedures dictated by the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer require universal masking or contact tracing to keep students in school.
On Feb. 16, the Maine CDC Standard Operating Procedures were revised to read that “schools may conduct contact tracing … if feasible.”
The revision eliminated lines stating that the Maine CDC recommended schools conduct contact tracing unless it enforces a universal masking policy. However, the Maine CDC continues to recommend indoor masking in schools.
On Feb. 25, the federal CDC issued guidance making masks optional on public transportation. As a result, Tuttle announced that masking would be optional in RSU 12 schools and transportation.
Those who test positive for COVID-19 at RSU 12 schools will continue to quarantine for five days, so long as they are symptom free by the end of the five days, and then wear a mask for an additional five days while in school.
RSU 12 includes seven towns – Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield, and Windsor. Among the seven towns are four elementary schools – Chelsea Elementary School, Palermo Consolidated School, Whitefield Elementary School, and Windsor Elementary School.
Palermo Consolidated School is located in Waldo County and Windsor and Chelsea elementary schools are in Kennebec County.
Lincoln County continues to have a “high” COVID-19 community transmission level, as determined by the federal CDC, meaning that masking in public indoor spaces is officially recommended.
There is no masking recommendation for communities with “medium” and “low” community levels.
According to CDC data updated Feb. 24, only three Maine counties meet the criteria for a “medium” COVID-19 Community Level: Kennebec, Somerset, and Waldo Counties. All other Maine counties are at a “high” community level.
“With this significant change, I would like to emphasize that all members of the RSU 12 community should feel comfortable with whatever option they choose and no one should be made to feel like they should or should not wear a mask. We should all support each other in individual decisions around the wearing of masks,” Tuttle said in his Feb. 20 announcement.
Other Lincoln County schools and districts appear to be preparing for updates from the Maine CDC that enables them to confidently shift to an optional masking policy.
RSU 2, which serves the towns of Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth, and Richmond, has moved to optional masking in Hall-Dale and Monmouth schools, which are located in Kennebec County.
In an announcement on the RSU 2 website on Feb. 28, Acting Superintendent Matt Gilbert said that the RSU 2 school board will review the masking policies for Dresden, located in Lincoln County, and Richmond, located in Sagadahoc County, at its meeting via Zoom at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 3.
Until that time, universal masking is still required at Dresden Elementary School and Richmond schools.
On Feb. 28, Gilbert sent a survey to members of the Dresden Elementary School community asking them whether they support continued universal masking or making masking optional for students, staff, and visitors.
While Lincoln Academy is upholding a universal masking protocol while the Lincoln County community level remains high, Head of School Jeffrey Burroughs said he anticipates a transition to optional masking at Lincoln Academy sometime this spring in an email on Feb. 28.
“I realize that for many this will be a welcomed change and for others it may be unsettling. We’ve done an exceptional job keeping kids safe and in school at Lincoln Academy due to the support and care of our community of students, parents, faculty and staff,” Burroughs said. “We’ll continue to work with our local and state agencies and the team here to make appropriate changes when we can do so safely and efficiently.”
Similar to Burroughs take, RSU 40 Superintendent Steve Nolan said he believes CDC guidance for schools is “on the verge of relaxing” at a school board meeting on Feb. 17, shortly before the board approved a motion to grant Nolan the authority to change protocols at RSU 40 schools should Maine’s standard operating procedures change.
RSU 40 serves the towns of Friendship, Union, Waldoboro, Warren, and Washington. The board of directors will next meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3 in person at the central office and remotely on Google Meets.
AOS 93 school committees are scheduled to discuss the Feb. 16 updates to the standard operating procedures throughout the month of March.
At its meeting on March 1, the South Bristol School Committee voted to stop mandating masks while outside – such as at recess – and to make masking optional in the school building and on buses when Lincoln County reaches a moderate level as defined by the CDC. If the county does not reach a moderate level of infections in two weeks, the committee will reconvene to reconsider.
Chair Sara Mitchell said it was important that, when masking becomes optional at the school, the choices of the students are respected.
“We have to be courteous,” Mitchell said. “There’s a lot going on, and we need to make sure we can all respect each other.”
The Bristol School Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, at the Bristol Consolidated School. Jefferson School Committee meets at 6 p.m. Monday, March 7, at the Jefferson Village School. Great Salt Bay School Committee meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, at the Great Salt Bay Community School, and the Nobleboro School Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 14, at the Nobleboro Central School.
A livestream of AOS 93 school committee meetings and recordings of past meetings are available at the AOS 93 YouTube page.
Additionally, the Wiscasset School Committee will next meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, in the Wiscasset Elementary School cafeteria.
(Deputy Editor Maia Zewert contributed to this story)