Fort Kent Community High School. Credit: Jessica Potila / SJVT

FORT KENT, Maine — SAD 27 began mandating masks in Fort Kent Elementary, Valley Rivers Middle School and Community High School Thursday morning — the second day of school.

Just one week after upholding an optional mask policy, the SAD 27 school board voted 5-2 Wednesday night to mandate masks in classrooms when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control classified Aroostook County as having substantial or high community transmission.

The school joins a growing tide of mask-optional Aroostook County schools that are switching gears to mandate masks in the opening days of the fall semester. Madawaska, SAD 33 (Frenchville) and Presque Isle have all changed their decisions so far.

Board Chairperson Gary Sibley and board member Leroy McKenzie voted against the policy.

Survey data shows that optional masking is still broadly preferred among parents and students, though teachers voted much more closely on the matter — slightly preferring a universal masking policy overall. Teachers in the audience reported that a third or less students wore masks to school on Wednesday, the first day of school.

Alongside parents and teachers who spoke on both sides of the debate, several doctors, nurses and other medical professionals attended the meeting to support a mask mandate. They all concurred that masks would slow or even stop in-school transmission and keep kids learning in person in classrooms. 

More health care experts reached out via email between last week’s decision and this week’s, Sibley said.

“I don’t want this anymore. I just want everything to be normal, too,” board member Toby Jandreau said. “But we heard from, I think, every practitioner in the St. John Valley in the past 48 hours … I’m inclined to listen to the people who know more than me about this.”

If community transmission rates change or outbreaks are clearly isolated away from the St. John Valley — an instance a doctor at the meeting said was unlikely — the board may convene again and reevaluate its policy.

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