A sign leftover from the year-long school mask mandate still adorns the front entryway of the St. John Valley Technology Center. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — With schools reopening in a few weeks and COVID-19 case numbers again on the rise, educators are still grappling with whether to require that students wear masks.

But Aroostook County faces an earlier deadline to make the decision, with the area’s traditional harvest break pushing some start dates weeks ahead of other schools. In Mars Hill, classes start on Aug. 11.

With the promise of frequent changes to the mask rules as health officials monitor the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, some schools in The County will have to wait until the last minute to make the call on whether to require masks or leave the choice up to parents.

Maine’s only current K-12 mask mandate is on school buses, where kids regardless of vaccination status will be required to wear masks. Beyond that, the Maine Department of Education is following the national CDC and recommending, but not requiring, that all students and school staff wear masks.

Aroostook superintendents will meet Monday morning to discuss how they plan to advise students and teachers, though districts may respond differently to the state recommendations.

Although she hopes to leave students’ masking up to parents’ discretion, SAD 42 and 24 superintendent Elaine Boulier is waiting to talk it over with her fellow superintendents before she makes that plan official. Boulier — whose districts cover Mars Hill and Van Buren — said that she doesn’t want to tell parents they’ll have a choice, only for the Maine CDC to change its mind in the time before school starts.

“I think sometimes the state forgets that there are schools in The County that start three to four weeks earlier than everyone else,” Boulier said.

RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak, who oversees the schools for kids in Stockholm and Caribou, said he plans to leave masks up to the parents as well. His schools start on Aug. 18, but Doak said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a mask mandate come from the state before then, if delta variant cases continue to rise in Maine.

The strict COVID-19 safety requirements in schools helped keep cases low among children last year. Even when outbreaks in schools were more common in the spring as adults became vaccinated and mask mandates outside of school eased, schools still made up only 10 percent of Maine’s total cases.

Already the delta variant is showing signs of spreading more readily through children, many of whom are under 12 years old and unable to be vaccinated.

“Obviously those are the kids we want to make sure we keep safe when we have them in our schools,” Boulier said. “But it is a huge wild card because we don’t know what that’s going to look like moving forward.”

Boulier said she hopes that the state will take a county-by-county approach when it comes to mask requirements — comparable to how schools decided whether they would meet in-person or remotely last year. Right now, cases are low in Aroostook County compared with other places in Maine, where the risk for community transmission is higher.

It doesn’t make sense to enforce the same rules on students in Aroostook as it does on students in counties like Waldo, Somerset and Hancock — where the state currently is recommending masks be worn indoors, Boulier said.

Even within The County, cases could vary wildly between communities, she added. Mars Hill and Van Buren, Boulier’s two districts, are 50 miles apart from each other.

Although Aroostook schools are still debating whether to require masks, they’re already opting to keep other precautions in place, including rigorous cleaning routines, social distancing and temperature checks.

“The more layers we keep in place, the better we’ll be in terms of trying to be proactive rather than reactive,” Boulier said.

The DOE is also urging schools to encourage students and staff to get vaccinated, when possible, and to continually test the student body for COVID-19.

“Layering of strategies continues to be the best advice, and has proven effective,” DOE Director of Communications Kelli Deveaux said. “Last year, Maine schools implemented six health and safety requirements, which, when layered together, kept our schools safer than the general population, as the data demonstrated week after week.”

At the end of the year, graduation ceremonies across The County celebrated the end of what was a singularly challenging year in school history, and when the school mask mandate was lifted at the end of June, there was hope the coming year would be different.

Now, things feel uncertain all over again, Boulier said.

“What’s true today may not hold true tomorrow,” she said. “Unfortunately, when we thought we would be stabilizing and being more on a level playing field for a while, we’re back in the ups and downs where we were when we left in the spring.”

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.