Central Aroostook High School principal Kay York (far left), junior high science teacher Whitney Williams and ed tech Carissa Henderson (right) greet students as they start their first day of school on Wednesday. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

MARS HILL, Maine — SAD 42 became the first district in Aroostook County to return to school Wednesday, without mandating masks and social distancing, although the future of statewide guidance remains uncertain.

Just before 8 a.m. several school buses rolled into the parking lot of Central Aroostook High School. The majority of students getting off the bus wore masks per U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements for public transportation, but most opted to remove face coverings once inside the school.

Outside, teachers and Principal Kay York held “Welcome Back” signs and passed out snacks as upbeat pop music blared from nearby speakers. As with last year’s first day of school, York and her staff wanted to instill positivity during a time when COVID still poses a threat to regular school routines.

“I think everyone feels this sense of relief to have students back in school,” York said. “It’s like returning to a new normal.”

For now that new normal includes students, parents and staff members choosing whether to wear masks in school regardless of vaccination status.

At this time, SAD 42 does not have data on how many staff members and students are vaccinated. However, they plan to report monthly staff data to the Maine Department of Education beginning in September.

Superintendent Elaine Boulier noted that the district is exploring the option of holding a vaccination clinic this fall, as they did this past spring. Based on informal talks with staff, she suspects that a majority of staff members are fully vaccinated.

But that number might be much lower for students due to the lack of vaccine approval for children younger than 12 and the personal choices of students and parents.

“We had a small number of students at our clinic last spring, but we’re not sure yet how many were vaccinated during summer break,” Boulier said.

SAD 42’s decision not to mandate masks aligns with other districts in central Aroostook.

Thus far, school boards for SAD 1, which has schools in Presque Isle and Mapleton, the Easton School Department, SAD 45 (Washburn) and SAD 20 (Fort Fairfield) have voted to make masks optional.

Joel Hall, principal of Ashland Community School, part of the SAD 32 district in Ashland, stated that his district will release information about their COVID plan within the next week. SAD 32 students return Sept. 7.

SAD 45 and Easton begin classes for all students on Aug. 18. Presque Isle High School students return on Aug. 19 and elementary and middle school students return Sept. 7. All SAD 20 students begin school Aug. 25.

Two other school districts in The County — RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook) and SAD 33 (Wisdom) — decided face coverings would be mandatory for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status.

Boulier stated that her district’s choice to not mandate masks received strong support from parents and the school community.

The district will continue with its current plans, which also include optional social distancing of 3 feet for classrooms and regular sanitization, unless the Maine DOE and CDC enforce stricter guidelines or mandates. SAD 42 is not offering virtual learning options this year and plans to offer full-time, in-person instruction unless a CDC mandate or COVID outbreak prevents them from doing so.

“It’s always good for parents to have a voice in these decisions,” Boulier said, about mask options. “We’re going to keep a close eye on [the COVID situation] not only in our community but surrounding communities. If we get a new directive from the DOE, we’ll be ready to proceed with that.”