A large crowd gathered for a special SAD 70 school board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 18, as the topic of mandatory face coverings was back on the table. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — Aroostook County’s school reopening is not going how educators imagined it.

Less than a week into their fall semesters, Van Buren and Caribou high schools have been pushed back into remote learning by cases among the staff and student body. Fort Fairfield and Limestone schools both postponed the start of the semester due to rising cases in the district and the surrounding community. And schools that were once mask-optional, like Presque Isle and Madawaska, are reversing their decisions to try and keep kids in classrooms.

Emergency school board meetings have become nightly occurrences, as districts struggle to balance the safety recommendations from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention with fierce opposition to mask mandates, testing and vaccinations from parents and other community members.

The County’s schools are the first ones in the state to return, but already they show that in all likelihood, schools across the state will have to mask students in order to keep them in the classroom.

Jonathan Lovewell attends Caribou High School from home Wednesday morning after the school was forced remote by two COVID-19 cases in the school. Lovewell is temporarily living in an RV with his five siblings while his family, new to the area, moves into their home. Courtesy of Tamara Lovewell

“I think it’s worse now than it ever was last year,” Caribou and Fort Fairfield Superintendent Tim Doak said. “If we do not use all of our mitigation strategies … I don’t think we’re going to make it through.”

Although the Maine CDC and Department of Education left masking decisions up to the districts, the rules make it difficult for schools to remain in-person if they don’t mandate masks. Students who are close contacts — meaning they have come within 3 feet of a COVID-19 positive person — have to quarantine for 10 days if they are unvaccinated and the school is mask optional.

That’s how nearly half of Van Buren high school’s student body wound up relegated to online learning on the third day of school after a staff member who later tested positive to COVID-19 came into close contact with almost the entire school.

In schools where masks are required, close contacts don’t have to be quarantined regardless of their vaccination status — a particularly important exemption in elementary schools, where most students are too young to get the vaccine.

This exemption motivated the SAD 33 school board in Frenchville and St. Agatha to keep a mask mandate in place, despite survey data showing overwhelming opposition from the community.

Maine’s largest school districts — Portland and Bangor — have already implemented mandates but the fight over masks rages on in smaller communities. Local police have responded to mask debates in Skowhegan, Hampden and Caribou.

“There are times when [I’m] mad and [I’m] just not sure what [I’m] mad about,” Doak said. “I’ve never seen a time in my career in education where parents haven’t advocated for the safety of their children 100 percent.”

Logan Lovewell studies from home during remote learning for Caribou High School Wednesday morning. Lovewell is temporarily living in an RV with his five siblings while his family, new to the area, moves into their home. Courtesy of Tamara Lovewell

The effectiveness of masks in schools is unquestionable given their success at preventing outbreaks last year, Presque Isle Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said. He moved his schools from optional to mandated masks Wednesday afternoon after four students tested positive for COVID-19 in the first six days, and said that he was confident it would stop the spread.

Implementing masks, as well as other mitigation measures like hand washing and pool testing, will prevent most COVID-19 spread in schools, according to Kelli Deveaux, the director of communications for the Department of Education. 

“The Maine Department of Education continues to strongly urge all Maine schools to follow these public health recommendations, which have proven effective in protecting the health and safety of students and staff,” Deveaux said. “When implemented last year, this layered strategy kept new case rates in schools lower than that of the general population.”

School hasn’t started yet in mask-optional Lewiston, but Superintendent Jake Langlais has been studying rising case counts in his region — as well as COVID-19 cases in Aroostook County schools — and will recommend a mask mandate at a school board meeting Thursday night.

He likened starting the year with optional masks to driving on a quarter tank of gas — the decision to fill up or keep driving may depend on the person and the situation. But choosing not to fill up — or in this case, not to mask up — is always riskier.

“I’m not going to [keep driving] if I’m in the deep woods. I’m not going to do it if nobody’s around. I’m not going to do it if it’s bad weather, and I’m not going to do it if our kids are in the back of my car,” Langlais said.

When it comes down to it, the choice for many schools may be to implement masks, or deal with quarantining and remote learning throughout the school year.

Brothers Dean and Jack Gibson, 12 and 9 years old respectively, go to school at Caribou Community School. Though they haven’t gone back to school yet, they agreed they would rather wear masks than attend remotely. 

“I would prefer going to school wearing a mask because I’m like actually in school,” Dean Gibson said. “You’re just on the computer all day online.”

“In real school you can see your friends and at snack time you can talk to your friends,” Jack Gibson said. “I wear the masks so much in school that I kind of just get used to it, so whenever I’m wearing a mask, sometimes I forget I’m wearing a mask.”

Correction: A previous version of this report misstated Dean and Jack Gibson’s last name.

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.