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The experience of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson should be instructive for Maine school districts as they consider, and in some cases reconsider, how to approach mask requirements heading into another school year. Our main takeaway: things can change quickly, and that requires continued caution and flexibility while we are still in a pandemic.
Hutchinson said in early August that he regretted signing a law earlier this year that banned state and local mask mandates. He signed that bill in April when cases were low in Arkansas. Fast forward to August, and cases had skyrocketed amid the delta variant rise. Less than 37 percent of Arkansas’s population was fully vaccinated at the beginning of the month, and according to the state’s Secretary of Health, almost 20 percent of the active cases were in children under the age of 18.
Hutchinson had the good sense and humility to acknowledge that “it was an error” to ban mask mandates, and in the process highlighted the scientific fact that on the ground realities change, and public policies need to keep up.
“I knew it would be overridden by the legislature if I didn’t sign it, and I had already eliminated our statewide mask mandate. Everything has changed now,” Hutchinson said in an Aug. 3 press conference, in which he called for a special legislative session to change the law so that schools could require masks. An Arkansas judge later temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the ban on mask mandates.
“Everything has changed now.” Those words should stand out to local school leaders across the country, many of whom thankfully are not constrained by such a ban, as they continue to make decisions about masking in their district. Their policies should allow administrations to be responsive and adaptive to the current situation.
So how have things changed in Maine compared to the start of last school year, when masks were required statewide for most students? New cases have actually been higher this August than August 2020. Vaccines are now available to staff and older students, but not for children under 12. Schools have another tool in the new state pool testing program that allows participating staff and students to get tested once a week, but it seems that process could take more time for some districts to set up.
As the Bangor Daily News’ Jessica Piper reported recently, COVID-19 cases have “risen sharply” in Maine in recent weeks and hospitalizations have more than quadrupled. More children are getting infected compared to this time last year, too.
Masks aren’t armor, but they remain part of the diverse tool box in this continued pandemic.
Already, some of the Maine school districts that had made masks optional have reversed course or are considering a reversal of that policy. That may not be the popular decision among some parents, but it is the prudent one right now.
As reported by the BDN’s Lia Russell, when Brewer superintendent Gregg Palmer announced an optional masking policy earlier this summer, he also reserved the right to change to universal masking “based on facts on the ground.”
Among those shifting facts is new state guidance that allows students who have been exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom to skip quarantine (and stay in school) if their school requires and enforces mask use, and there was no direct physical contact.
“That is a significant change and a way to keep everyone at school as we open up full time to all our students,” Palmer said.
If the goal is to safely keep as many students in the classroom as much as possible, and it should be, masks will continue to be part of that effort — at least for now.
An optional masking policy has also been reversed, for now, in Hermon schools. As the BDN’s David Marino reported, the Hermon School Committee voted 3-0 in an emergency meeting Monday to give the district superintendent discretion to respond to local COVID-19 conditions. Again, that is a reasonable and responsible decision.
Other districts, including the Hampden-area and Lewiston school boards, are revisiting optional mask decisions at some point this week. Hopefully they will join these other local leaders in adapting to the facts on the ground (including estimated local student vaccination rates, which were released by the state Tuesday and are expected to be updated approximately every two weeks).
This adaptation, we’d note, should go both ways. When new Bangor superintendent of schools James Tager announced a mandatory universal masking policy in early August, he also envisioned potential changes to that policy if COVID vaccines are approved for children under 12. Districts should be requiring masks to start the year and reassessing that decision as the severity of the pandemic changes.