Though Maine removed its recommendation that schools require masks on Wednesday, Portland’s school board has no plans to remove its requirement until COVID-19 transmission drops, the city’s school board chair said.
School board chair Emily Figdor said a future without masks is possible, but that the district won’t consider it until Cumberland County stops being designated as a high-transmission community for a stable period by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Figdor’s statement came hours after the state announced that it would no longer recommend mask mandates in schools. Maine school boards, including Portland’s, have ultimate authority on mandating masks for students and teachers, with the guidance being optional.
The U.S. CDC is recommending that anybody who lives in a county with high transmission wear a mask indoors under new guidelines released last week. That designation applies to 13 out of Maine’s 16 counties, including Cumberland County.
The CDC’s metric for determining transmission levels emphasizes hospitalizations and available hospital beds but also factors in case counts.
“The mask mandate is not a static decision,” Figdor said. “It’s based on the science of the evolving pandemic.”
Portland superintendent Xavier Botana said in a board meeting Tuesday that the district “will be in a position to revisit” the in-door masking requirement once warmer weather allows for more time outside, including outdoor lunch.
“I am, like everybody else, anxious to put COVID behind us,” Botana said. “However, I do not want to rush to undo our mitigation practices that have allowed us to run school safely for all of this year.”
Figdor said that more outdoor time was a factor for her, but she would look at lower transmission rates first.
Some students and teachers would likely continue to wear masks even if the mandate was lifted, Figdor said, though she noted it was impossible to know precisely how many would do so.
In a statement on Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that masking would continue to be a “layer of protection” for some children even without mask mandates in effect. That includes unvaccinated children, those who are immunocompromised and those who live with high-risk family members.
The district is already taking some actions to reverse COVID-19 protocols though: it has told teachers that they no longer need to keep seating charts.
COVID-19 cases have shrunk precipitously within Portland schools in recent weeks: the number peaked at 527 in the week of Jan. 9 but dropped to just 19 in the week of Feb. 13, according to school data. Students returned this week from a week long break and new data isn’t just available.
Around two-thirds of the 21,000 5- to 11-year-olds in Cumberland County are vaccinated, a number that is among the highest for any county in the country. Around 87 percent of 12- to 19 -year-olds in the county have also gotten the shot.