Dexter Regional High School is one of the schools in SAD 46. Credit: Stuart Hedstrom / Piscataquis Observer

DEXTER, Maine — SAD 46 will require masks or face shields in the schools only under certain circumstances guided by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s community transmission color code system.

Instead of universal masking, masks will be required in common areas in the buildings such as hallways when Penobscot County is in the red stage, the Maine CDC’s most severe designation for community transmission. They will be optional in the classroom and outside regardless of the level of community transmission, and will be optional in common areas when community transmission is at any of the three lower designations.

Masks will be worn on buses or other school transportation in compliance with the U.S. CDC mandate.

The SAD 46 Board of Director’s decision was part of a modified plan approved with a 6-4 vote during its meeting Wednesday, and comes amid debates in schools around the state about making masks optional or mandatory as the start of the fall semester approaches.

In Aroostook County, where some districts are already in session, schools have been forced to remote learning by COVID-19 cases. Other districts that started out with optional masking have switched to mandatory face coverings one or two days into their school years.

Less than a week into the start of classes, Van Buren and Caribou high schools have 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 students in classrooms.

Superintendent Kevin Jordan recommended universal masking in the proposal he presented to the board, with exceptions for people with certain disabilities. Face shields would require a doctor’s note.

“We think masking certainly presents a better opportunity for students to stay in school,” Jordan said, citing Aroostook County’s woes.

The board voted down Jordan’s proposal 6-4 after a discussion that included board members and the public, and modified it to masking in common areas, which ultimately passed. The board likely will review its masking requirements month by month as the school year progresses.

“We certainly understand masking is a divisive issue. We hear it from both sides,” Jordan said.

Ellsworth’s school district chose a similar plan to what SAD 46 approved, and is meeting Thursday night to reconsider it.

The first full day of school for SAD 46 will be on Wednesday. Students and staff will be in the school building five days a week with no regular plans for hybrid or remote learning. There will be no limit on the number of people per classroom, as there was last year.

Jordan said the plan for the 2021-22 academic year includes some recommendations from the Maine CDC that previously had been requirements, including physical distancing of 3 feet between people when possible, promotion of hand washing and respiratory etiquette and encouraging those who feel ill to stay home.

“We are hopeful things will progress to be more like where we were pre-pandemic,” he said. “Our No. 1 goal is to have all students, all staff in-person learning all year.”

The school district will comply with the state mandate for staff to anonymously report their vaccination status. The state will make the percentage of compliance available to the public.

Extracurricular activities and athletics are on track for normal seasons, Jordan said. The Maine Principals Association  is leaving decisions about those programs up to the school districts this year.

The school board moved its next meeting from Sept. 1, to Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. at Ridge View to allow directors to hear about the first two weeks of classes.

The approved plan will be posted at aos94. org /.