Students at Brewer High School wear face masks in the classroom in January 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

DYER BROOK, Maine — Students attending Southern Aroostook Community School and Wisdom Middle/High School will be wearing face masks when they return to classes this fall.

Citing an increased number of COVID-19 cases in Aroostook County, particularly those with the delta variant, both school boards unanimously approved making face coverings mandatory for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, when classes resume.

The two districts are the first in Aroostook County to require masks when school goes back in session. The Bangor and Portland school departments also announced masks would be required for students and staff.

Administrators in RSU 29 (Houlton) and SAD 1 (Presque Isle) have opted to make masks optional.

RSU 50, which includes the communities of Dyer Brook, Crystal, Hersey, Island Falls, Merrill, Oakfield and Smyrna, returns to the classroom on Aug. 30. SAD 33, which comprises Frenchville and St. Agatha, resumes school Aug. 25 for grades 9-12 and Sept. 9 for those in pre-K to 8.

“For us it is about keeping our kids, staff and community safe,” RSU 50 Superintendent Jon Porter said. “We really want to try to limit the disruptions in learning. We want to keep our students in the building as much as possible.”

The moves come as Aroostook County is in the midst of an influx of new COVID-19 cases and masks are now being recommended for all indoor settings regardless of vaccination status.

The U.S. and Maine CDC were already recommending that schools require face coverings. Porter said the Maine Commissioner of Education also recommended face coverings when meeting with superintendents during an Aug. 9 meeting.

Both superintendents stated that the requirement will be revisited throughout the school year and could be changed if the number of cases decreases.

“The board would like us to continue to monitor community spread and we will revisit this topic during every regular monthly meeting,” Sirois said. “Regarding their decision to require masking, several of the board members work for Northern Maine Medical Center and shared that the U.S. CDC recommendations are the best ways to protect our school community from widespread COVID-19 infection in schools, and by doing so, we can have more students in school where they belong for the majority of the school year.”

Neither school district is offering remote learning as an alternative for traditional classes this fall.

In addition to recommending face coverings, pool testing is also being suggested. Pool testing is a form of surveillance testing that combines a whole group’s tests (typically between 5-25 students) into one “pool” instead of testing everyone individually.

Participants will be tested weekly and if an individual in a pool is positive, the entire pool will then be tested. Students will not have to isolate, unless they are positive or symptomatic.

Porter said there was no reluctance on his board’s part on the decision to include pool testing for students this fall.

“One of the things around pool testing, or any testing, you need to have parental consent,” Porter said. “If a parent doesn’t want their child pool tested, that is their option.”

However, any student deemed to be in close contact that declines to participate in pool testing will be required to quarantine for 10 days. Remote learning will be offered to those students, Porter said.

“The ultimate goal is to have a successful school year,” Porter said. “What worked last year, will hopefully work for us this year.”