Searsport District High School and the adjacent Searsport District Middle School were renovated in 2002. Regional School Unit 20 may close the schools as a cost-cutting measure. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The last school district in Waldo County to not mandate masks this year will now require them in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak at Searsport District Middle and High School.  

Regional School Unit 20, which includes the towns of Searsport and Stockton Springs, also has pivoted to remote learning for all students until Oct. 25, according to a letter Superintendent Chris Downing sent to staff, students and families on Wednesday.

“Until further notice, due to the outbreak status and resultant high number of quarantined students and staff, effective Thursday 21 October 2021, RSU 20 will require universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to RSU 20 schools, transportation and buildings, regardless of vaccination status,” Downing wrote.

There are seven reported cases at Searsport District Middle School and five at Searsport District High School, according to the Maine Department of Education’s dashboard of COVID-19 case numbers, which was updated on Thursday afternoon. The Maine CDC defines outbreaks as three or more confirmed cases within a 14-day period that are epidemiologically linked.

The question of masking in schools has been a flash point for parents and school districts both in Maine and around the country. School board meetings everywhere have seen robust discussion on the issue as elected board members grappled with the decision to make mask wearing a universal requirement or optional.

Some meetings have become tense and hostile, with one parent at a board meeting at Poland Regional High School falsely alleging earlier this month that by making children wear masks, school districts are taking action similar to those used by human traffickers.

At a meeting held in August, RSU 20 board members decided to make the decision about masking up to the parents. The majority of speakers opposed requiring masks, according to the Republican Journal, although at least one parent did speak in favor of universal masking, saying that while nobody likes wearing masks, they would dislike remote learning even more.

At that meeting, board members decided to revisit the idea of masking as the COVID-19 situation evolved, and gave the superintendent the authority to make changes for the safety of staff and students.

Response to the district’s pivot on masking this week has been mixed on social media, with some parents expressing relief and others decrying it as unnecessary and a scare tactic.

This week, Downing said that while close contacts must remain in quarantine until notified by school administration, other students will be able to return to school on Oct. 25.