Hermon School Department Superintendent Jim Chasse speaks at an emergency school committee meeting on Monday. Chasse asked the committee to give him the discretion to make decisions related to COVID-19, which was granted -- he will use it to require masking in at least the first few weeks of school. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Masks will now be required for students in Hermon schools for at least the first weeks of classes after the School Committee voted against a mandate last week.

The Hermon School Committee voted 3-0 in an emergency meeting on Monday at Hermon High School to give the district’s superintendent discretion to respond to local COVID-19 conditions.

The Hermon School Department wanted to err on the side of caution given that it needs more time to set up pool testing, Superintendent Jim Chasse said. The district also recently saw a COVID-19 case on one of its athletic teams that has required five other students to quarantine.

“I do not want any student to become a pandemic statistic,” Chasse said. “I must consider each and every student.”

Restrictions will be reduced gradually as pool testing becomes established, Chasse said. That includes getting the pool testing supplies — a month’s worth which is set to arrive Tuesday — and registering students for pool and pool groups that represent the student population.  

Committee Chair Jesse Keith and members Scott Hatch and Deborah Langille voted in favor while members Kristen Shorey and Stephanie Oiler        voted to abstain.

Chasse said the school district will evaluate where they are, including the number of local cases, at a Sept. 14 committee meeting.

Nearly 40 people — primarily Hermon parents — attended Monday’s meeting, with parents fiercely divided over whether the district should have a mask requirement.

Jeremiah Rancourt, the parent of two children going into elementary school in Hermon, argues for a mask requirement in an emergency school committee meeting on Monday. Rancourt said the the choice was clear given rising COVID-19 cases in Penobscot County. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Jeremiah Rancourt, who also spoke in the Aug. 16 meeting and has two children going to Patricia A. Duran School, said that the choice was clear given the community spread across Penobscot County.

The county has among the highest rates of new infections for any county in the state, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranking transmission as “high.”

“These kids are going to go into a contained room for six hours a day,” Rancourt said. “And we’re going to assume that nobody’s going to have COVID-19 and spread it amongst their classmates? That’s a huge presumption.”

Ricky Hughes, who said he had moved to Hermon last year, said that allowing masks would mean the School Committee was bowing to pressure from the rest of society.

Ricky Hughes at the Hermon School Committee meeting on Monday. Hughes forcefully argued against a mask requirement, saying that parents should be able to decide for themselves whether they will mask their kids. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

“I think it should be a choice of the family whether you want to mask up or not,” Hughes said. “I should be able to decide for my child.”

But other parents who supported a mask requirement said it wasn’t so simple: their masked child would still be at greater risk of being infected with COVID-19 by an unmasked one.

“Your choice is affecting my child,” said Jillian Piehler, who has children going into kindergarten and fourth grade.

Another woman who spoke said she had lost a family member the day before to COVID-19. Yet, she still fiercely opposed a mask requirement, citing the mental effect it would have on children.