A cutout of former President John F. Kennedy occupies a seat next to student Reilly Sullivan, alongside social studies teacher Logan Landry, at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland on Jan. 29, 2021. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Good morning from Augusta.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “She’s 300,000 miles of pure sex,” said Gigi Gabor about Peg, the converted Massachusetts transit bus that the drag group Curbside Queens uses to travel from location to location. The performers thought their show would last a few weeks, depending on how long the pandemic lasted. Now it’s a staple for them. Here’s your soundtrack.

What we’re watching today

School districts that had planned to make masks optional this fall are reversing course as the semester kicks off and COVID-19 cases continue to rise. The start of the school year, with many Maine students beginning classes this week, comes amid another surge in virus cases, with another 475 cases reported Tuesday, covering the past three days. The seven-day average of new cases is the highest it has been since early May.

School boards across the state, sometimes facing intense pressure from angry parents, had diverged on mandatory masking. It is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Gov. Janet Mills opted to leave the ultimate decision up to local school districts. Many of those that originally opted to make masks optional have now reversed course.

Board members in Lewiston, Maine’s second-largest school district, narrowly decided last week to overrule a previous decision making mask optional and require them for now following a change in recommendation from the district’s superintendent. Brewer schools made the same reversal earlier this month, with the district’s superintendent citing rising cases both across Maine and in that community.

A Kennebec County district was the latest to mandate masks, with school board members of RSU 38 — which covers Readfield, Mount Vernon, Manchester and Wayne — voting to require masks in schools Monday evening, a week after they had said masking would be encouraged but optional. Students in that district begin classes tomorrow.

The changes in plans come as several districts in northern Maine, where classes began earlier this month, have already been forced to switch to online learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Schools in Limestone, Caribou and Van Buren are currently doing remote learning, something that schools in the rest of the state are hoping to avoid.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Maine surge shows how quickly COVID-19 can stretch hospitals in high-vaccination states,” Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd, Bangor Daily News: “It highlights how quickly the trajectory of COVID-19 can change, even in states with the lowest case rates and highest vaccination rates, and the challenges that poses for health care providers as they care for more virus patients while simultaneously continuing to offer regular services and address a backlog of care delayed by the pandemic.”

The Bangor area has been hit hardest by the latest surge in hospitalizations. Eastern Maine Medical Center, the state’s second-largest hospital, saw an average of 95 percent of its critical care beds filled last week, according to federally reported data, as Maine set a record last week for the number of COVID-19 patients requiring critical care.

— “Business, higher education leaders call for pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” Ari Snider, Maine Public: “[University of New England] President James Herbert noted that Maine’s healthcare sector already relies heavily on immigrant workers. Herbert added that supporting undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children — a group commonly known as Dreamers — is vital to [the] medical industry.”

Both of Maine’s senators have backed immigration reform in the past, but it is now linked to a partisan budget bill. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, voted for a 2013 immigration reform bill and offered legislation in 2018 that would protect Dreamers, but neither became law. Advocates are now looking to get protections inserted into Democrats’ party-line budget bill, which could be unveiled this fall but still must win over skeptical centrist members of the party in both chambers. Collins has already called Democrats’ initial $3.5 trillion offer an “enormous and unsustainable amount of spending.”

— “QAnon conspiracy theorist who organized far-right Belfast event dies of COVID-19,” Christopher Burns, BDN: “During last month’s event at the Crosby Center in Belfast, Steele and other attendees pushed for a “forensic audit” of Maine’s election results, although no such legal mechanism exists and there is no evidence of significant voter fraud or election irregularities here or nationally.”

Maine’s junior U.S. senator is on the mend after contracting the virus while vaccinated. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, described his battle with COVID-19 to The Associated Press as “the worst head cold you ever had, times two,” but said he is glad he is vaccinated or he may have ended up hospitalized. A 77-year-old cancer survivor, King was also treated with monoclonal antibodies.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Jessica Piper, Caitlin Andrews and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...