A sign on the door to a Portland building instructs visitors to wear a mask on Tuesday Dec. 22, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Belfast-based Regional School Unit 71 will require students and staff to wear masks universally to start the 2021-22 school year, regardless of vaccination status.

The measure was approved in a 7-1 vote Monday night by the district’s school board as part of a reopening plan. The mask mandate  follows a growing trend across the state as the pandemic affects a third school year. More than a dozen parents voiced support for mandatory masking as necessary to keep everyone safe and in school.

“If we are all masking in the schools, students won’t have to quarantine when there are positive cases in the schools, that will allow us to keep kids in schools where they need to learn and it will also keep parents able to work,” Melissa Hacket, the mother of a Belfast Area High School freshman, said. “I think it’s the responsibility of our schools to provide the safest learning environment for our students. I think that universal masking is a simple and proven way to ensure that this year.”

The plan passed by the board is a tiered approach, based on what level of community transmission Waldo County is experiencing as determined by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. At each of the four virus transmission levels ― from low to high ― masks will be required universally. Masking will also be required outdoors when Waldo County is experiencing substantial or high transmission, and will only be recommended outdoors when transmission is low or moderate.

Other protocols in the plan include pool testing of students with parental consent, daily symptom screening and social distancing of three feet when possible.

The district sent a COVID-19 survey to parents, students and staff earlier this month, and the results showed that 60 percent of respondents favored requiring masks. Eighty-five percent of responding parents said they would send their children to school if masks are required. If masks are not required, only 60 percent of parents would do so.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that masks be worn in schools regardless of vaccination status, because of the contagious delta variant.

However, some were hoping that the district would place the decision in the hands of parents with optional masking.

Niki Shaefe, a mother of three students in the district, said masking has made it difficult for her son, who has special needs, to communicate with others. While she said she respects every parent’s decision, she did not want to mask her children.

“I’m just advocating for parents and parents’ ability to make the choice for their children, whether they feel masks are appropriate or not,” Shaefe said.

School board member Steve Hopkins, a representative from Belmont, agreed with this sentiment and voted against the plan because it mandated masks.

Other school board members said they would like to remove the mask requirement as soon as it is safe to do so. Ultimately the board voted to review the plan with the superintendent on a monthly basis going forward and possibly make changes if transmission levels decline.

“I think equally as important as keeping our kids safe medically, it’s incredibly important for these kids to be able to have a prom, have homecoming, have a pep rally,” Cory Seekins, a school board representative from Swanville said. “I will be the person who is constantly pushing for normalcy.”

Multiple staff members from the district spoke in support of universal masking. They pointed out that students overwhelmingly succeeded in wearing masks last year and could do it again this year.

“We need to go back to masking and we need to do it universally because if we don’t, what I foresee is our schools closing. Part of our responsibility right now is to keep our students safe, is to keep our staff safe and to keep our schools open. We need to wear our masks,” said Holly Blais, a faculty member at the Captain Albert Stevens School.