A sign asking visitors to wear a mask hangs on the front door of the Steuben Town Office on March 3, 2021. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The first day of school is approaching fast, but some midcoast parents still don’t know if masks will be mandated for their children or not.

As the coronavirus pandemic grinds through its 18th month, school districts around the state are grappling with tough decisions around mask wearing. In the midcoast region a number of school districts ― including those based in Rockland, Thorndike and Northport  ―  have already approved plans requiring students and staff to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. But some school boards, including the Belfast-based Regional School Unit 71, have not yet voted on the matter.

That is causing some parents, including Peter Mattox of Swanville, to worry. His 5-year-old daughter is scheduled to start the first grade at the end of August, but if the RSU 71 school board decides next week against requiring mask wearing in the five-town Waldo County school district, that will change the family’s risk calculations for COVID-19.

“It would be negligent and irresponsible,” Mattox said of a possible vote against masking. “My number one job as a parent is to keep my kid safe the best that I can. And Waldo County is way above the threshold for high transmission. It’s a hot spot. Ground zero for the state.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that masks be worn in schools regardless of vaccination status, because of the contagious delta variant. Despite that, school board meetings about the issue around the state have seen some  parents arguing passionately in favor of making mask wearing optional, citing their right to do what they believe is best for their children. 

During the last academic year, the decision wasn’t left up to individual school districts. Maine was under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Janet Mills and public school students who were able to attend classes in person wore masks. Most schools in the state also offered a remote learning option for students whose families were not comfortable with having children in school during the pandemic. By and large, that option is not being made available this year.

Micdoast administrators pushing for universal masking policies feel that they are one of the best options for keeping students and staff healthy ― and in school― as the future of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic remains elusive.

“As we did last year, we are entering the unknown, and we simply don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID or any variant of COVID,” Five Town Community School District and Maine School Administrative District 28 superintendent Maria Libby said.

The board for that district ― a combined school district that serves students in the Camden-area ― will vote Tuesday on whether or not to accept a universal masking policy that is being recommended by administrators.

Likewise, the St. George Municipal School Unit school board will vote Monday on  a drafted plan that would require students and staff to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

The board of Belfast-based RSU 71 will vote on the issue at its next meeting, held at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 23. The district sent a COVID-19 survey to parents, students and staff earlier this month, and the results showed that 60 percent of respondents favored requiring masks. As well, 85 percent of responding parents said they would send their children to school if masks are required. If masks are not required, only 60 percent of parents would do so.

The school district is not able to offer a remote learning option to students this year, according to RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean.

At an Aug. 9 meeting, school board members were split on whether the district should require universal masking,  according to the Republican Journal. Some members of the public also spoke against mask mandates, with one woman suggesting that masks can cause infections, reduce socialization and decrease learning, according to the report.

A ccording to the American Academy of Pediatrics, masks do not affect children’s ability to focus and learn in school and do not weaken the immune system, make it harder to breathe or increase a child’s chances of getting sick.

Other midcoast districts have already made the call on masks for the upcoming school year.

Regional School Unit 13 ― which serves a large swath of the county including Rockland ― informed parents last week that masks would be mandatory in all of its schools. The district’s school board had yet to revoke its masking policy from last year, so a new vote on the matter was not needed, according to RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald.

McDonald said he has received some negative responses regarding the masking policy. However, he said by and large the response has been supportive.

“It just seems like the prudent thing to do to keep students healthy and that’s my number one goal,” McDonald said. “I think parents understand that we want to stay open and stay safe.”

Officials in School Union 69 ― which oversees schools in Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville ― voted last week to adopt a universal masking policy.

For Waldoboro-based Regional School Unit 40, the school board-approved plan requires students and staff to wear masks indoors. But the mandate only applies when Knox County or Lincoln County are considered to have high or substantial transmission of the virus as determined by the CDC, according to the Courier Gazette. That plan was approved on Thursday.

The school board of Regional School Unit 20, which serves Searsport and Stockton Springs, voted earlier this month against mandatory mask wearing. Although the CDC recommended universal masking, the agency did not require it, and the board decided not to require it, either, Superintendent Chris Downing said Friday evening. 

“There has been some response on both sides of the issue,” he said. 

Downing said the RSU 20 board will be open to hearing more feedback about its masking policy at its next meeting, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 24 at the Searsport District Middle/ High School cafeteria and live streamed on YouTube.

Regional School Unit 3, which serves 11 towns in western Waldo County, will require universal masking indoors on RSU 3 property.

Superintendent Charles Brown of Regional School Unit 3, which serves 11 towns in western Waldo County, said in an Aug. 11 letter to families that he understands “this is a passionate subject for many and that there is no one plan that will please everyone.”

But the district is following masking recommendations all the same, he said.

“The safety of our students, staff and community are of the utmost importance,” he said.

The board of the Northport School Department, which serves just one town with the K-8 Edna Drinkwater School, also decided to make masking mandatory for its students.

“We’re following the CDC requirements, as we have this entire time,” school board member Sandy Wallace said Friday, adding that the administration hasn’t heard any feedback from parents regarding the decision.

It was not immediately clear if RSU 20, the Searsport-Stockton Springs school district, had come to a decision on mask wearing.

For Mattox, requiring people to wear masks in schools this year simply makes sense given that the delta variant is much more contagious and dangerous for kids. Masks are a system to keep the virus from spreading as much, and to him it seems like a bad time to take this system away. He wishes there was more leadership at the state level on the issue so that local school boards did not need to wrestle with the question by themselves.

“As a community, it’s my opinion that we should do everything we can to keep contagious respiratory diseases out of our kids’ noses, throats and lungs,” he said. “The way this goes is, until everyone is safe, no one is safe.”