A school bus sits outside Hampden Academy. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

RSU 22’s board of directors voted Wednesday night to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year.

The decision came hours after two people connected to Hampden Academy had tested positive for COVID-19 and the town office had shuttered for the week due to a staff member contracting the virus. The same night, the Bangor School Committee voted unanimously to make masking mandatory.  

It had been expected that the board would vote to make masks optional, despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that masks be worn in schools regardless of vaccination status because of the contagious delta variant. RSU 22 serves Frankfort, Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh.

Superintendent Regan Nickels told the Bangor Daily News earlier Wednesday that she had recommended a universal mask mandate for students in pre-K through sixth grade, since children under 12 are not eligible for vaccination. On Monday, Hermon voted to make masks optional.

Students will still need to wear masks on buses, to comply with the CDC’s order requiring face coverings on public transportation. Students and teachers can also choose to participate in weekly pool testing to detect virus cases, Nickels said. 

Board director Lester French of Hampden said that students from poorer families would feel the consequences of not masking more acutely. He cited finding affordable child care as a hurdle if their children had to quarantine due to exposure.

The public comment period lasted more than an hour. More than 15 people spoke in favor of making masking optional, citing their parental right to do what they thought was best for their children.

Some voiced concerns that enforcing a universal mask mandate would negatively impact their kids’ social development and that social distancing requirements would stunt their ability to make friends and form bonds with teachers.

One parent, wearing a “Let Them Breathe” shirt, said that his child’s love for his music class had been tempered by mask requirements that barred him and his classmates from singing or playing instruments.

RSU 22 parent Dan Acosta said his parents had immigrated from Cuba, and likened mask mandates to the creeping authoritarianism his family had fled.

“It started small, it was always a loss of freedom here, an infringement on liberty there,” he said. “The past year taught me many lessons of how authoritarianism is constantly creeping forward. Five weeks to slow the spread turned into more than a year of hard lockdowns.”

Michael Smith identified himself as a RSU 22 parent and Marines Corps veteran. He said his “duty to defend freedom” didn’t end with his military career. He characterized the CDC’s recommendation as a conduit to “restricting liberties” and encroaching upon his right to decide whether his children should wear masks.

He compared the school district to the titular rodent in the children’s book “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.”

“The mouse is never satisfied,” Smith said.

“The cookie is my freedom to choose,” he said.

Only three people spoke in favor of masking, pointing to rising COVID caseloads among pediatric patients as backing their wishes to see a universal mask mandate.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated Lester French’s last name.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.