Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health's COVID-19 response and was speaking as a private citizen, listens to speakers at a Bangor School Committee meeting on a mask requirement for schools on Wednesday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Both Bangor and Orono schools will require masks in schools for at least the start of the school year.

The Bangor School Committee unanimously passed a district plan to require masks for students, staff and visitors 6-0 on Wednesday, with members saying the delta variant of COVID-19 posed far too great a risk to do otherwise.

Similarly, the Orono school district — RSU 26 — passed a motion approving a universal mask mandate requiring masks in buildings Wednesday night.

“I had to go back and remind myself how far we’ve come to where these recommendations have put us compared to any place last year,” RSU 26 Superintendent Meredith Higgins said. “Last year we could not have all children in the building…and what we were asking of the teachers was really difficult and taxing and not what was best for children.”

Bangor School Department Superintendent James Tager had first announced the school department planned to require employees and students to wear masks on Aug. 9, pending approval from the committee.

Wednesday’s vote ensures that one of the largest school districts in Maine will fall on the side of masking in what has become a cantankerous debate in school districts across the state.

Outside of Bangor, Bucksport-based RSU 25 has also voted to require masks for students and staff indoors, as had the Milford School Board. The Hermon School Committee voted not to do so on Monday. In Ellsworth, the school committee voted to require masks in “high-traffic” areas, such as in hallways in between classes, but not to require them in classrooms while class is in session.

Meanwhile, RSU 22’s board of directors — which serves Frankfort, Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh — voted Wednesday night to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year.

Public commentators were mixed in their support for the proposal, with the primary tread line being disputes over the risk of COVID-19 to children. Some in opposition questioned the effectiveness of masks, including one woman who falsely said there was no evidence they prevented the spread of the coronavirus.

Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health’s response to COVID-19 but said he was speaking as a member of the community, said the situation had drastically changed in recent weeks.

The delta variant spreads more quickly and has put more children than ever in the hospital nationwide, Jarvis said. In addition, he noted data from an American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association report that showed Maine having the fourth highest rate of any state for children as a percentage of COVID-19 infections. They have made up 19 percent of cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We must do everything in our power to see that they can not only start the school year, but continue it uninterrupted,” Jarvis said.

Councilors were in agreement with such arguments. They acknowledged that masking was a nuisance, but they saw it as a livable one if Bangor schools wanted to avoid lockdowns and coronavirus infections. In addition, a significant chunk of students remain ineligible to be vaccinated from the virus, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12.

“I certainly understand this is going to be a moving target,” committee member Warren Caruso said. “But, I think all of us here are committed to having a normal year.”

One contentious moment came when parent Monique Swartz, who was speaking in opposition to masking, asked Jarvis (who was in the audience) how many children had died of the coronavirus in Maine.

“If it was one, that’s one too many,” Jarvis replied.

About 20 members of the public attended the school committee meeting. Some who didn’t speak themselves clapped after Swartz spoke in a display of opposition against the mask requirement.

Bangor Schools Superintendent James Tager speaks at a meeting where members debated a mask requirement on Wednesday. Tager had asked the committee to approve a plan that would require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks.

Tager said he would continue to meet monthly with a planning committee of district faculty, staff, parents, nurses and school committee members and review the reopening plan frequently. He said he hoped for the day when coronavirus cases were going in the opposite direction.

“I feel in my heart that this is the right thing to do,” Tager said. “As we get better statistics from our medical folks, we would love to loosen our mandate.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...