SAD 27 residents in support of optional masking at district schools applaud a speaker at a Wednesday, Dec. 8 meeting at Fort Kent Community High School. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine – For the third time in four months, SAD 27 board members voted Wednesday to approve a district-wide face mask mandate as residents, and the board members themselves, remain staunchly divided on the issue.

Around 80 members of the public representing both sides of the issue were at Wednesday’s meeting at the high school gymnasium, along with more who were on Zoom video conference. More than 40 people signed up to speak, although many relinquished their allotted 3 minutes as the evening wore on.

The debate resurfaces as Fort Kent Elementary School suffers the highest number of cases of any Maine school in the last 30 days. The school entered  into a remote learning model last week when cases soared to more than 10 percent of the population.

“It’s no secret there is a great divide in this country, in this state, in this community and in this very gym regarding a great deal of many things,” Superintendent Ben Sirois said. “But in an effort to celebrate something we have in common, as superintendent of schools, I want to thank each and every one of you for advocating for what you believe is best for children and the children of this community.”

The seven-member school board, which represents Fort Kent, St. John Plantation, St. Francis, Wallagrass and New Canada and governs the schools in Fort Kent, voted 5-2 to enact the mask mandate on Aug. 26 when the Maine Centers for Disease Control classified Aroostook County as having substantial or high community transmission of COVID-19.

Joey Ouellette, a Fort Kent town councilor, registered nurse and parent of two district children, asked the board to move to optional masking in the schools. No district students have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and that data from schools with optional masking proved that those schools fared as well as SAD 27 schools in terms of infection rates, he said.

In mid-November, the percentage of positive cases at the only two schools in Aroostook County with optional masks – SAD 70 in Hodgdon and RSU 89 in Stacyville (Katahdin) – was slightly higher than at schools with mask mandates.

Ouellette asked the board to “honor the people” by voting based on the results of two August surveys that showed SAD 27 parents and students preferred optional masking.  

Presque Isle-based lawyer Luke Rossignol presented a petition signed by approximately 200 of Fort Kent’s more than 2,000 residents asking the board to make masking optional.

Despite a request by Board Chair Keith Jandreau Jr. that everyone adhere to the district mask policy, dozens of attendees remained maskless, including board members Gary Sibley Jr. and Leroy McKenzie. 

Michael and Sheri Albert have two children in the district, but attended the meeting on behalf of their 12-year-old daughter Kearston, who cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19 because her immune system is compromised by her battle with leukemia.


Michael Albert asked the board to consider “the good of every child that’s in this district, not just the well children.”

Rebecca Overton, a registered nurse whose young son attends Pre-K at Fort Kent Elementary School, said she feels putting a mask on her healthy 5-year-old son is harmful for him.

“It’s not right that my child can’t exchange facial expressions with his teacher or his classmates and is missing out on learning fully about emotional intelligence and non-verbal communication at a crucial stage in his development,” Overton said.

Dr. David Ettinger, an emergency physician at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent, said the hospital is “overwhelmed” with COVID-19 cases.

COVID cases escalated when Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention removed mask mandates. Children, even if they don’t become sick themselves, can carry the virus to grandparents, who are more vulnerable, he said.

District medical adviser Dr. Kristin Hartt of Northern Maine Medical Center pointed out recent studies that prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to encourage masking in schools in areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmissions.

She said there have been two pediatric COVID deaths in Maine so far, and a colleague downstate has seen multiple juvenile patients for myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, as a result of contracting the virus. She has also seen local children with long-haul COVID symptoms that have limited their physical and cognitive abilities for up to a year.

“I don’t want to wait until we see that here to decide it’s a big deal,” Dr. Hartt said.