In this Aug. 17, 2021, file photo, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas. Credit: LM Otero

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Michael Brennan represents part of Portland in the Maine House of Representatives. He is the House chair of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

 I fully support the Mills administration’s decision to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all health care workers. We have seen how COVID-19 outbreaks in health care settings have led to staffing shortages, causing dire situations for both patients and workers. By requiring health care workers to be vaccinated, Gov. Janet Mills has taken a critical step to protect our health care infrastructure as the more contagious delta variant continues to spread.

As students and teachers are preparing for another school year, it is essential that we take similar steps to protect our schools by requiring masking, vaccinations for those who are eligible, rapid testing, social distancing and proper ventilation.

Let’s not forget that one year ago, Maine school districts were charting new pathways for students and staff to attend schools in the middle of the pandemic. Masking, social distancing and virus testing quickly became the accepted norms. While some school districts were open five days a week, the majority of school systems opted for “hybrid” learning models. Furthermore, in an effort to contain the virus, high-risk extracurricular events, such as football games, were postponed.  

Thanks to the relentless and indefatigable efforts of teachers, school staff, students and parents,  most of Maine’s schools were open for in-person and hybrid learning last year. But we also saw how precarious school operations can be. An infected school bus driver could close a school while another infected staff person could result in a dozen required quarantines. For many, the ongoing stress of attending school and contending with a possible outbreak was daunting.

Repeatedly, during this past legislative session, I heard reports about students who were experiencing learning loss and social-emotional difficulties due to limited access to school. On top of that, without daytime child care, many parents with school-age children were forced to either take time off from work or leave their jobs entirely. Last year showed us that keeping our schools open is not only important for our children’s education and development, but that it is also vital to our entire economy.

When the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available and cases in Maine started to drop, it looked like we were going to be able to return to educational “normalcy” this fall. However, the delta variant has forced us to reconsider what the new school year will now entail.

Tensions have flared at school board meetings in Skowhegan, Hallowell and Topsham over proposed policies to mandate masks for students and school personnel. The   Lewiston School Board voted against a mandated masking policy while the Portland Board of Education voted to require uniform masking.

The opposition to masking is at odds with research and science that supports the importance of masking in public schools. The case for masking was made clear in a New York Times opinion column authored by Kanecia Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, and Danny Benjamin a professor of pediatrics at Duke Health. “We have learned a few things for certain: although vaccination is the best way to prevent COVID-19, universal masking is a close second, and with masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction regardless of community rates of infection,” they wrote. Analyzing data on more than one million students, Zimmerman and Benjamin stated that universal masking in schools can save lives.

Along with universal masking, the Maine Department of Education’s guidance for COVID-19 prevention also recommends vaccination. According to the department, vaccines are the leading public health strategy against COVID-19 and can help schools safely return to in-person learning and resume extracurricular activities.

Clearly, the combination of universal masking and vaccinations provides us the best strategy for reopening Maine’s public schools safely — and the best strategy for keeping them open.

As House chair of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, I am sensitive to the concerns many school boards have about these policies. However, the highly contagious delta variant poses a significant threat to our ability to keep our schools open for in-person learning this school year, and this is a circumstance where the health and safety of our students, school personnel and communities must be put before concerns about “local control.”

I will be asking Gov. Janet Mills and my colleagues in the Legislature to implement policies calling for universal masking and the vaccination of all eligible persons in our public schools. It is time to end the haphazard debates and, instead, offer a reasonable, safe and healthy return to public schools for our students, staff and communities.