Mask mandates have become the dominant issue at stake in school board races In Ellsworth, and in many school districts across the country this fall. The three candidates in Ellsworth vying for the one open 3-year term on the city’s school board have differing views on the topic and it could play a decisive role in who gets elected on Nov. 2.
One candidate who has expressed support for wearing masks in schools is almost certain to be elected to the board, but she is running unopposed for a 1-year term. Tara Young is expected to fill a seat currently held by Muneer Hasham, who was appointed this summer to fill a vacancy on the Ellsworth School Department Board of Directors and who is not running to keep the seat.
For the 3-year term, candidates Abigail Miller, the incumbent, and challenger Joshua Dudeck say they support following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for when people should wear masks in indoor public spaces.
But Casey Hardwick, another challenger, says that city schools should not require students and staff to wear masks indoors, but instead should leave it up to individual choice.
In August, as the start of the school year was drawing near, the city school board held multiple meetings as it grappled with the issue. After initially deciding to require that masks in high-traffic areas such as hallways between classes, but not in classrooms, the board changed the policy at a subsequent meeting to require that masking inside school facilities whenever the U.S. CDC classifies Penobscot or Hancock counties as having “substantial” or “high” COVID-19 transmission rates.
Miller said this week that she supports that position. Vaccines are not yet available to students under the age of 12 and both counties still have high transmission rates, she said. When children can get vaccinated and the counties’ case rates go down, there should not be a universal mandate though, she said.
“Our votes need to reflect real-time situations unfolding in our county at the current time,” she said.
Dudeck also said that he supports the local school mask mandate, but would be willing to reconsider as more children get vaccinated and the pandemic eases.
“I think there may be some room to make changes based on local conditions,” he said.
Hardwick said that Ellsworth schools should maintain their intensified cleaning practices, she does not support the current mask requirement. She said masks have never been required to prevent the spread of influenza, which at times in the past has affected higher percentages of the city’s students than COVID has.
“Masking should be left up to individual students and parents,” she said, adding that for people 25 and under in Maine, hospitalization rates from COVID have been “minimal” and the death rate “almost non-existent.”
Dudeck, whose two children are in the third and sixth grades in the Ellsworth school system, is trained as a lawyer, though he is not licensed to practice law in Maine. He works in the residential mortgage loan business.
Hardwick, who graduated from Ellsworth High School in 1997, has three children, two of whom graduated from the high school in 2014 and 2016. Her third child is a junior. She works as a full-time licensed real estate agent.
Miller has served on the board since 2018. She has a daughter in the seventh grade at Ellsworth Elementary Middle School. She studied education in college and is self-employed as an online business consultant and costume maker.
Painting crosswalks in rainbow colors to show support for the LGBTQ+ community also has been a subject of debate in Ellsworth.
Last year, the school board voted to allow two school crosswalks — one at the high school and one at the elementary/middle school — to be painted in Pride colors, but the Ellsworth City Council did not approve doing the same for crosswalks downtown.
Miller and Dudeck each said they support continuing to have rainbow crosswalks at the schools. Hardwick declined to say if she supports continuing the practice, calling it a “moot point” because the school crosswalks already have been painted. However, Hardwick does believe the entire student body should be consulted next time a similar decision is made.
Young has said she fully supports maintaining the rainbow crosswalks at the schools.
As for other issues, Dudeck said he would like to boost community involvement at the schools, and to help improve general communication between school officials and parents. Miller and Hardwick each said they will push for greater transparency by the board and school officials, so that parents and the public have better access to information about school board meetings and school decisions.