HALLOWELL — Leanne Burnham asked the question on everyone’s mind Thursday night at the Regional School Unit 2 board meeting: “How do we keep kids in school?”
Burnham, the school board of directors’s vice chair, asked the committee and the 80 participants at the virtual Zoom meeting to think of the board’s main goal to keep students in school, in-person, the best way they can. COVID-19 cases across the state rise at an unprecedented rate. Against that backdrop, the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention and Department of Education’s guidelines changed.
The board members ultimately voted against a motion, offered by Russ Hughes, that said the school would follow the new CDC guidelines, but in the future the district would not automatically follow the guidelines as they change. If the guidelines did change, the board would have to vote on what aspect they would want to follow.
The focus of the debate about guidelines was whether to continue mandating masks inside schools, as the CDC recommends to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The motion set by Hughes narrowly failed. Six board members: Chris Myers Asch, Donna Seppy, Jon Hamann, Jon Lambert, Linda Leet and Burnham voted against it and wanted to continue following CDC guidelines without caveats. Hughes, Jeffrey Bickford, Kathryn Marseglia, Dawn Gallagher and Mark Pearson voted in favor. Board member Jay Brown was absent.
As a result, masking in schools, as well as quarantining for five days if exposed to COVID-19, will continue to be the district policy. If a student is vaccinated, the school has universal masking and pool testing in place, close contacts do not have to quarantine, according to the new COVID-19 guidelines the district elected to follow.
Regional School Unit 2 includes Farmingdale, Hallowell, Richmond, Monmouth and Dresden.
Bickford chimed in on the discussion. Before Hughes’ motion, Bickford began to offer a motion to eliminate masking, social distancing and quarantining completely to create the district’s “own response” to the virus, but it failed to get a second from other board members.
School Nurse Amy Hammonds tried to explain to the board the new guidelines that were brought in question.
“If universal masking is taken away and other elements are not met (masking, pool testing and social distancing), that student would have to quarantine for five days at home, then five more days, for a total of 10 days,” Hammonds said. “If universal masking is taken away, they still have to quarantine.”
During public comment, the board heard from two Farmingdale parents who were against masking in schools. One parent, Jess Weeks, urged the board have more communication among parents and to involve families and community members in their discussions. She suggested a public forum for parents to voice their concerns.
After an hour of back and forth, Burnham reminded everyone that the safety guidelines are there to keep children safe, regardless if people “agree one way or another.”
“We have to figure out how we take this information from both sides and come to a decision as a group on what we can do to keep the kids in school,” she said.
In Superintendent Tonya Arnold’s absence during a paid medical leave, Assistant Superintendent Matt Gilbert filled in for her and updated the district on the current COVID-19 situation. As of Thursday, districtwide, there have been 28 COVID-19 cases among students and staff.
Gilbert said moving forward, he will release communications on Friday on the total number of COVID-19 cases districtwide, and broken down by school. The board applauded his communication and response to the coronavirus guidelines as he explained the district is getting ready to start pool testing and what the new protocol for an outbreak within a school is.
“For outbreaks, we will only be notifying positive cases within the school community and school identified close contacts,” he said.