In this Aug. 4, 2020, file photo, District Health Coordinator Brittany Layman speaks to RSU 22 board members about personal protective equipment at Hampden Academy. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Parents and teachers in Regional School Unit 22 have registered surprise and dismay in the last week since the vote of the Hampden-area district’s board to make masking optional for students in the 2021-22 school year.

An emergency meeting set for Tuesday night to potentially revisit that policy will take place amid a backdrop that’s changed from just six days ago when the board last met. COVID-19 cases have kept rising in Maine and Penobscot County, a number of other districts have revisited their mask-optional policies in recent days and the makeup of the RSU 22 board has even changed since the board last met.

One thing that sets the situation apart in RSU 22 is why the board might reconsider the masking policy.

On Monday, RSU 22 Superintendent Regan Nickels said the mask-optional policy had passed  only because of a tabulation error that gave more weight than it should have to two members’ votes. At Tuesday night’s meeting, the board will decide how to move forward — whether it will hold a new vote or stick with the mask-optional policy that passed in error.

In one other sign of the changing circumstances, masks will be required to attend tonight’s meeting, a departure from last week’s mostly maskless meeting.

One Hampden teacher said her reaction to last week’s vote was “surprise and then disappointment.”

The majority of teachers and staff supported universal masking in an informal survey the teachers’ association had circulated before the school board vote, said Beth Kilgore, who teaches at Hampden Academy.

“We weren’t expecting the policy to be amended like that,” Kilgore said, referring to Nickels’ original proposal requiring students in prekindergarten through sixth grade wear masks because they can’t be vaccinated.

Board member Anthony Liberatore, who represents Hampden, proposed the amendment to Nickels’ plan to make masking optional for students. The board members whose votes were given the wrong weight both voted for his amendment, allowing it to narrowly pass.

A petition advocating for the school board to reverse its decision has been circulating, and claimed 808 supporters as of Tuesday morning.

An RSU 22 parent who declined to be named out of fear of retaliation said the school board’s vote came as a shock, considering how stringent its masking and quarantine policies had been last school year.

The vote came hours after Nickels informed the community that a Hampden Academy student-athlete and member of the high school’s coaching staff had tested positive for COVID-19.

Since then, another student-athlete has tested positive, according to a letter Nickels sent Sunday afternoon. That case is unconnected to the previous two, she said. Contact tracers identified four close contacts who will need to quarantine until Aug. 30.

Nickels and Assistant Superintendent Christine Boone said that while the board is obligated to hold a special emergency meeting, it could decide to move forward with the optional masking plan as is.

However, a new addition to the RSU 22 board of directors could tilt the board’s makeup in favor of masking.

At a Monday night Town Council meeting, Hampden voted to appoint Jillian Sarnacki-Wood to a vacant position on the RSU 22 board. The meeting was held virtually because the town office was closed because a staffer tested positive for COVID-19.

Sarnacki-Wood, a local business owner, said in her application that she would approach board issues with an “open mind, heart and full understanding of the facts and science behind all recommendations given by our trusted professionals, our educators and our community.” She was among the applicants for the position who said masks should be mandatory for students.

Sarnacki-Wood will serve until November 2022 in place of Kimberley Moran, who resigned in accordance with RSU 22 rules because she was seeking a position in the district.

If the RSU 22 board votes to revisit its masking policy, it wouldn’t be the first in the Bangor area that have switched to mandatory masking in the past week in response to rising COVID-19 cases. As of Monday, Penobscot County’s seven-day average of new daily cases had risen 177 percent over the past two weeks, according to The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker.

Last week, Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer mandated that masks be worn in schools after the school committee had passed an earlier policy making them optional, citing rising COVID-19 cases and new Maine Department of Education guidelines on quarantining.

Hermon’s school committee voted Monday to allow Superintendent Jim Chasse the authority to institute masking rules in response to local COVID-19 conditions a week after it voted to make masking optional. Masks will now be required for at least the first few weeks of the school year.

Outside of the Bangor area, Lewiston’s school committee will also hold an emergency meeting on Thursday, when it could reverse course on an optional masking policy after the committee heard from “many parents and community members” who were in favor of universal masking.

Both in Maine and nationwide, school board meetings have become sites of contention between parents, teachers and local officials grappling with how to implement masking and COVID-19 testing policies.

Lia Russell

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