Members of the Milford community debate the pros and cons of a universal mask mandate during a Milford School Committee meeting inside the Dr. Lewis Libby School Aug. 12, 2021. Credit: Sawer Loftus / BDN

Local school board meetings have been the center of debate about masks and COVID-19 prevention in Maine in recent weeks.

In Gardiner last week, a parent who works as a health care worker said masking was the best way to prevent kids from contracting the virus. Another added that masks were needed “if you don’t want Zoom kindergarten.”

But an older student said she was disheartened to have to wear a mask again after “doing everything I was told” including quarantining last year and getting the vaccine. Several parents said the issue should come down to parental choice. A relative of students said officials should avoid fear-mongering given low rates of severe disease in children, adding “Trump won.”

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Although most attendees spoke in opposition to masks, a district-wide survey showed a slight majority of parents and a greater share of teachers preferred requiring them in some form. The school board covering Gardiner, West Gardiner, Pittston and Randolph voted in favor of requiring masks at the end of a three-hour meeting. The policy will be reviewed each month.

The fraught debate was just one example of the difficult decisions schools across Maine are making as students return to the classroom under worse COVID-19 conditions compared with a year ago. Statewide mandates that governed the last school year are now merely suggestions and it is falling on school boards to make big decisions under pressure from vocal parents.

“It is just so political when what it needs to be about is student learning and student capacity to be in school,” said Becky Fles, the school board chair for the Gardiner-area district and president of the Maine School Boards Association.

While schools consider mask policies, COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in Maine over the past few weeks and hospitalizations have more than quadrupled. Infections among children have climbed too, with an average of about 30 children testing positive per day last week, a rate more than five times higher than last August.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking for teachers and students regardless of vaccination status. Gov. Janet Mills endorsed that recommendation but left the final decision up to local school districts.

Masks are key to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools this fall, said Dr. Gibson Parrish, a physician and epidemiologist in southern Maine who used to work for the U.S. CDC. He pointed to the delta variant, which is far more contagious than earlier strains, as a risk for schools, especially for students younger than 12 ineligible for vaccines.

“If somebody has it, it’s more likely that they can spread it,” Parrish said. “Children and adolescents would be included in that.”

Masks were among the tools Maine relied on to halt the spread of the virus last year, along with physical distancing within classrooms and hybrid learning. Those measures were relatively effective, with only a few school-related outbreaks in which more than 10 people were infected.

The state has prioritized returning to the classroom five days per week this fall, with fewer options for remote instruction. Schools now have more tools to prevent the spread of the virus, including vaccinations for staff and older students and an opt-in pooled testing program that aims to catch asymptomatic cases before they turn into outbreaks.

In settings where masks are optional, students will need to quarantine if a classmate tests positive for COVID-19, while universal masking can prevent students from being identified as close contacts in the event of a positive case. One school — Van Buren High School in Aroostook County — is already requiring unvaccinated students to quarantine for 10 days due to a COVID-19 exposure.

Brian Hess, head custodian at the Washburn Elementary School in Auburn, Maine, strips the cafeteria floors in preparation for waxing on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Credit: Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via AP

School districts in Portland and Bangor mandated masks without significant pushback. Brewer indicated masks would be optional before reversing course to require them this week, citing rising infections along with several positive cases among community members. In nearby Hampden, officials are reassessing after a tabulation error led the board to pass a mask-optional policy.

Masks will be optional in Lewiston, neighboring Auburn and other cities and towns. In Auburn, David Simpson, the school board’s vice chair, voted against universal masking but in favor of a failed motion to require masks for children younger than 12. He raised the consideration of family choice, along with questions of under what circumstances a mask mandate would be lifted given that COVID-19 is now expected to be around for the foreseeable future.

“Last year, everything was made really, really easy at the local level, because it was mandated from Augusta via Washington,” he said.

Other states have taken differing approaches to virus precautions in schools, with some requiring masks statewide while others, such as Florida, have barred local school districts from mandating masks. In Mississippi, where mask-wearing has largely been optional, roughly 20,000 children — about 5 percent of students in the state — were forced to quarantine within a week of school starting due to possible COVID-19 exposure, a health official said last week.

In Gardiner, the school board is also setting up a coronavirus response team and plans to revisit its mask policy once a month, with the hopes that masks will no longer be needed down the line with increased vaccinations or a decline in cases.

“Where do we want to be in the end? We want to be in school,” said Fles. “So what’s our pathway right now? It’s with masks.”