A Hampden-area school board voted to reinstate masking requirements for the upcoming 2021-22 school year following nearly a week of heated discussion in the aftermath of a mistabulated vote that allowed an optional masking policy to narrowly pass.
Two members of Regional School Unit 22’s board of directors were given heavier voting weights than normal last week due to a data entry error. That led to a special emergency meeting Tuesday night, where the board voted unanimously to rescind last Wednesday’s mask-optional policy vote.
The school board then voted 10-4 in favor of implementing a new, amended plan requiring students in prekindergarten through sixth grade to wear masks and grant the superintendent flexibility to reevaluate masking guidelines as the district conducted pool testing and assessed virus trends.
Board members voted via roll call vote to avoid another potential error. Members Jessica Hamilton of Newburgh, Anthony Liberatore of Hampden, and Rob Frank and Chris Labonte of Winterport voted against granting the superintendent the additional flexibility.
Frank, who is the board’s vice chair, said he was voting against the rejection of a proposal he had made that would have implemented masking requirements for 30 days until more pool testing was conducted. He also suggested the district provide KN-95 masks.
The board weights its members’ votes according to the number of students in the communities they represent. The weighted vote tally worked out to 733-271 in favor of the masking requirement.
Board member John Holmes of Winterport proposed an amendment to reinstate Superintendent Regan Nickels’ original plan to require masks for prekindergartners through sixth-graders because they’re not eligible to be vaccinated. Frank’s proposal, to which Holmes proposed the amendment, would have instituted Nickels’ plan for up to 30 days before revisiting it in light of new data on virus transmission.
Under Nickels’ original recommendation, older children would be required to mask depending on local virus transmission rates. Currently, masks would be required because Penobscot and Waldo counties are experiencing transmission rates the U.S. CDC designates substantial or high.
Faye Andersen of Hampden introduced an amendment to Holmes’ motion to grant Nickels the flexibility to interpret or develop policies based on the data the school district received through its pool testing program, which board members approved as the final policy.
The vote followed a three-hour public comment period during which dozens of teachers, parents, students, pediatricians and family physicians testified in support of revisiting the masking policy and implementing a mask mandate in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Several who testified at Tuesday’s special emergency meeting cited Maine’s increasing numbers of younger patients and the dwindling number of ICU beds as their rationale for supporting mandatory masking.
“The state of Maine has 14 pediatric ICU beds, six of which are in Eastern Maine Medical Center,” said Dr. Angela Tsai, an otolaryngologist and RSU 22 parent. “That means it will not take much for our hospitals to be overwhelmed with sick children.”
It was a departure from last week’s board meeting, where 17 people spoke against a mask mandate, saying it was authoritarian and impeded upon parents’ rights. One man had compared the school board to the fickle titular rodent of the children’s book, “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” to make his case against required masking.
Only three people spoke in favor of masking then.
Before the special emergency meeting, students, RSU 22 parents and teachers gathered outside Hampden Academy. They wore masks and red clothing to indicate their support for educators.
One Hampden Academy teacher said that she had hoped the board would vote to overturn the optional masking vote and implement a mandate, citing the efficacy of masks in containing the spread of COVID in schools.
“As a teacher, my priority is safety, and our job is to keep our community safe,” Emily Albee said. “Masks do the job of keeping our kids safe.”
Rising Hampden Academy sophomore Ava Monyoc, 15, said she had hoped for the same, framing it as “the right thing to do.”
“We need to work together as a community and not just think of ourselves,” Monyoc said.
A number of circumstances had changed between last week’s mask-optional vote and this week’s vote for a mask requirement. COVID-19 cases have been rising in Penobscot County, other area districts — including Brewer and Hermon — have switched to mask requirements in the past week, and a new member took her seat on the RSU 22 board just in time for Tuesday’s meeting.
The Hampden Town Council on Monday night appointed Jillian Sarnacki-Wood to fill a vacancy on the school board. Sarnacki-Wood voted for the mask requirement.