Hermon School Committee Chair Jesse Keith votes on a motion during a special school committee meeting on Monday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

The Hermon School Committee voted 4-1 to not require students to wear masks in school buildings after fierce debate from parents on Monday.

The move will affect schooling for the nearly 1,400 students in the rapidly growing Hermon School Department. It will also mean that Bangor, Milford and Orono remain the only school districts in the Bangor region that are on track to require masks in the new semester.

The district will also use pool testing for COVID-19 to prevent outbreaks and avoid student quarantines.

The spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus and reports of an increasing number of children hospitalized with the virus was frequently brought up by supporters of a mask requirement. But opponents successfully argued it should be parents who should make the decision about whether their children are masked.

More than 40 people, mostly parents of students in the district, gathered in Hermon High School’s library to listen to both sides of the argument. Nearly a dozen people spoke, with those in support and opposition being about equal.

With record hospitalizations for children with COVID-19, Jeremiah Rancourt said that a mask requirement was the best way to keep kids safe.

“We all want our kids going to school,” said Rancourt, who will have two children going to elementary-level Patricia A. Duran School in the district this year. “If we don’t mask, studies are telling us we are going to have an outbreak.”

Ashley Gordon, who will have two children in the elementary school and another in Hermon Middle School, noted that her children had gone through summer programs, including playing basketball inside, without masks with no COVID-19 cases. She feels the risks will be similarly low during the upcoming school year.

“I think it should be a parent’s choice,” Gordon said. “Not a decision that is demanded by the school.”

On the School Committee, Stephanie Oiler may have been the most steadfast opponent of requiring masks. Committee member Deborah Langille was the only person to vote against the plan to not require masks, citing safety concerns.

Superintendent Jim Chasse had noted that requiring pool testing for COVID-19 in the student body would allow the district to avoid lengthy quarantines for close contacts of COVID-19 cases under recently released Maine Department of Education guidelines.

The committee saw such guidelines as the best way to avoid a mask requirement while preventing long quarantines that took students out of the classroom last year.

School Committee Chair Jesse Keith said he supported tabling the plan so it could be voted on at a later meeting as the situation develops and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases new data on Penobscot County. However, he ended up supporting the plan.