Ellsworth schools will require students to wear masks when the academic year starts after previously approving a hybrid policy. 

The Ellsworth School Board voted 4-0 to adopt a new mask policy as the state’s hospitals risk running out of ICU beds amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

The school board had previously only voted to require masks in “high-traffic” areas — such as a hallway — between classes. Now, all Ellsworth students will wear masks whenever Penobscot County or Hancock County is designated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as seeing “substantial” or “high” COVID-19 transmission. Both counties are currently in the high transmission category.

The vote came after a lengthy discussion, including a sometimes-acrimonious public discussion period in which one mother who opposed a mask requirement was escorted out by Ellsworth police officers. The woman had brought up the private social media posts of a school board member, accusing that member of not following COVID-19 precautions like mask-wearing.

About 80 people attended, mainly parents, though far fewer stayed for the duration of the nearly three-hour meeting. Masks were required, though some wore them below their nose or mouth, resulting in one attendee yelling “above your nose!” to another.

Dozens spoke on either side of the issue, with each given three minutes in a public comment session. Despite opening pleas from Chair Kelly McKenney to keep debate civil, people often got heated. 

The debate fell into talking points that have become familiar at school board meetings across Maine in recent weeks. Those who supported a mask requirement said the school board should follow the science around community transmission while those opposed disputed that science and said requiring masks in the classroom harmed children emotionally. 

Yet there was an added sense of urgency, with many parents supporting a mask requirement pointing out that the delta variant had accelerated the virus’ spread in Maine. Several brought up the multiple Aroostook County school districts that originally hadn’t required masks in classrooms and had since been required to switch to remote learning because of COVID-19 cases.

Masks were the only clear path to having students in school in person five days a week, said Nate Hanson, the father of an incoming sophomore at Ellsworth High School. That was especially true with Maine Department of Education policies that reduced quarantine requirements for students when there is universal masking in the classroom, he noted. 

“Do we choose to have a mask policy?” Hansen asked. “Or do we choose to make this the hill we are going to die on?”

On the other side of the debate, Casey Hardwick urged the board to consider instituting pool testing to stay in-person while not requiring masks. Like many in opposition to a mask requirement, she also said facemasks affect students’ ability to socialize. 

“These masks, I don’t feel, are important enough to our kids,” Hardwick said. “My son feels like people become antisocial and they will not talk to you in school.”

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, also spoke in opposition to a mask requirement. 

School Board member Muneer Hasham played a big role in crafting the policy, especially pushing to tie the mask rule to Penobscot and Hancock counties. Superintendent Daniel Higgins recommended requiring masks, citing rising cases locally. 

Hasham argued that the high case load in the more populated Penobscot County, which is heavily connected to Hancock County, could mean that cases would soon rise in Hancock as well. Tracking those cases would ensure the school board was always getting ahead of the issue, he said. 

He originally wanted a mask requirement when transmission was moderate in either county, but ended up compromising with McKenney to create the final plan. 

Board members also noted it was very unlikely transmission rates would be lower by the time school starts for some students on Wednesday, ensuring that all students would wear masks when classes begin. 

The board initially debated specifying that children under 12 would be required to wear a mask regardless of spread designations from the U.S. CDC. However, that debate was postponed to a later meeting amid debate about what would occur in 6th-grade classrooms with 11- and 12-year-olds together.