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Mills administration lifts universal mask recommendation in schools

Seventh grader Reilly Sullivan works on her computer at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Poland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Seventh grader Reilly Sullivan works on her computer at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Poland, Maine.

The Mills administration is lifting its universal masking recommendation in schools and child care centers beginning on March 9.

In a release on Wednesday, officials said that the change comes during a "new phase" of the pandemic, with vaccines and therapeutics widely available. The Maine CDC says the change is dependent on factors such as COVID-19 hospitalization numbers staying at a relatively lower level.

Several schools have already made masking optional in recent weeks. And Eileen King, the executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, says the latest guidance will help other districts with their own decisions.

"I think that gave them the green light to go ahead and move forward," she says.

While state officials say that institutions can still choose to mandate masks, King says she expects the vast majority of districts to go mask-optional.

"Now, we were also reminded that should the data turn in a different direction, we may have to pivot. So if there are increased cases in schools, we may have to pivot back to masking. But I think everyone's looking forward to seeing the smile on children's faces," she says.

The state still recommends masks for students returning from a five-day quarantine.

Maine's decision follows a change in federal CDC guidance last week. The recommendation is that masks be worn indoors — including in schools — in counties with high levels of transmission. That is the case for much of Maine, except for Kennebec, Somerset and Waldo Counties.

The Maine CDC says the new federal guidance should be used as just one piece of information in deciding mask policies.

Grace Leavitt, the head of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers, says some are concerned that it may be too soon in the pandemic to eliminate mask mandates.

"This is all dependent upon what the local conditions are. So we are encouraging educator voices to be part of those discussions as school boards are making their decisions," she says.

School officials say they plan to continue "pooled testing" programs to screen for the virus within classrooms.

Meanwhile, Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, says that while many parents will likely celebrate the new recommendation, other families could be placed in tricky situations. Her organization represents families of children who are immunocompromised and more at risk for the disease. Those students can still wear masks, but she says the new guidance presents new challenges for them.

"It's scary for that one family, and that one individual. It's our job to represent all families. So we get that, and we understand that. It's an unknown, what's going to happen," she says.

The Maine CDC still recommends universal masking in congregate living settings and medical and long-term care facilities. And the agency says its guidance could change if a new variant or surge hits the state.