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Health

Maine Districts, Parents, Teachers Divided On Masks In School This Fall

When kids are too young for vaccines, like this 7-year-old girl, masks are critical in reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. That's part of the newly updated Centers for Disease Control guidelines for the coming school year — and for any travel plans parents are making for summer.
When kids are too young for vaccines, like this 7-year-old girl, masks are critical in reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. That's part of the newly updated Centers for Disease Control guidelines for the coming school year — and for any travel plans parents are making for summer.

After a tumultuous school year that included remote and hybrid classes, many districts are looking at a more normal schedule resuming this fall. That means in-person classes, five days per week. But one policy is dividing administrators, parents, and teachers: whether to require masks.

In some districts -- such as those in Portland and Farmington -- school officials have already made it clear that as the more contagious delta variant spreads, they plan to follow the Maine CDC's strong recommendation and continue to require masking for most or all staff and students inside school buildings this fall.

But in other places, masking policies have become a point of contention. On Monday night, Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais presented a plan to require masks on school buses -- but not inside school buildings. Langlais said parents can decide what's best for their children, and he's encouraged by the relative safety of the district's summer programs.

"I don't have an exact number, but we've had nearly a thousand students attending summer school who have not had a mask on since June 30th, with the delta variant, that has progressed. And I don't believe that it's done, which we have to consider. We've had no instances of COVID-19 this summer, connected to our summer school, or being in person, at all levels except for the high school," Langlais says.

After hours of debate, the Lewiston School Committee approved the plan. Many parents cheered the policy, saying that families deserve to choose if their child should wear a mask. Lewiston parent and teacher Sarah Pomerleau says when her students wore face coverings last year, they were often quiet in the classroom and less motivated to do their work.

"But there's also a lot of risks I saw as a teacher, but also as a parent, in terms of, how are our kids doing, socially and emotionally," she says. "Which is something that's very important to the district. And I think that is something that we can't push aside. I don't think that it's less than."

But the mask-optional policies are prompting other families to rethink where their children go to school. Lori Banks is a parent of a 9-year-old student and a professor of biology at Bates College. Her daughter learned remotely last year, but that option is no longer available

Now, as Banks considers sending her daughter back to a school full of unvaccinated children without masks, she's debating whether to remove her from the district altogether.

"If the numbers are continuing to increase, they're having increased detection of these high-binding variants, then we're very seriously going to consider doing the home-school curriculum," Banks says.

And some teachers, including Pamela Rasmussen, a speech-language pathologist at Lewiston's Montello Elementary School, say that without masks, they'll lose a valuable layer of protection to prevent the virus's spread. Rasmussen says it's often impossible to keep even three feet of distance between themselves and their students. She worries about what that means for teachers who are immunocompromised or who can't get vaccinated.

"I'm also worried about possible staff who are medically vulnerable, and having a serious effect on them," she says.

The board of directors for the Maine Education Association released a statement on Monday that asks school boards and administrators to "follow, at a minimum, all of the recommendations of the experts at the Maine Center for Disease Control" and to work with teachers on their planning for the fall.

And while schools' masking policies may be mixed, administrators in Lewiston and other school districts say they will add additional safety measures next year. That includes encouraging vaccination through clinics, and joining the state's "pooled testing" program, which is intended to regularly monitor and quickly detect the presence of COVID-19. More than 160 schools in 50 districts have enrolled in the program so far.