BAR HARBOR — The wearing of masks to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 virus is now optional in all schools in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.
The school system board made that decision on a vote of 9-7 at a special meeting Monday night. At the same time, the board authorized Superintendent Mike Zboray to reimpose the mask mandate if there is a significant surge in COVID cases.
The board’s decision follows the Maine Center for Disease Control’s announcement last week that it is no longer recommending that schools mandate mask wearing.
“As that guidance changed and as communities across the state are making changes…I think it would require a tremendous amount of energy to support the expectation that we maintain our masking for a little while longer,” Zboray said.
He recommended that the MDIRSS schools “go mask optional and then be able to say, ‘We have to put on masks because we’re noticing (an increase in cases).’”
The motion that the school board passed stated: “The board authorizes the superintendent to use mandatory masking as a mitigation strategy for a limited time across the (school district) or for specific schools, spaces or activities in the future, if he deems it necessary, in consultation with public health experts and the CDC, in order to keep schools open and to maintain student and staff safety.
“Schools will continue to supply masks and other PPE [personal protective equipment] to staff and students who wish to wear them for the remainder of the school year.”
The motion was made by Marie Yarborough, who said that all the COVID-related decisions the board has made since the start of the pandemic “have revolved around guidance from the CDC, both federal and state…in addition to consulting with epidemiologists, local health officials and members of the [Downeast] COVID Task Force who are physicians and who do this for a living. We listened to our experts; we followed CDC guidance.
“I think if we accept Mike’s proposal…then we are completely aligning ourselves with the way we’ve made decisions in the past.”
Among the school board members who voted against lifting the mandate at this time was Dwayne Bolt, who said he had spoken with Dr. J.R. Krevans Jr., chair of infection control at MDI Hospital.
“He told me that, if we go optional, there will be a spike in infections,” Bolt said. “I don’t believe this is the right time to remove the masks.”
Board member Keri Hayes said children, including her own, have experienced so much anxiety during the COVID pandemic.
“But it’s not anxiety about wearing a mask; it’s anxiety about dying of COVID,” she said.
“I worry about the kids who are too young to be vaccinated; I worry about the kids whose parents refuse to vaccinate them; I worry about our teachers, some of whom have health problems. And I just worry that we may be moving too quickly.”
By the time the school board met on Monday, it had received 103 emails about masking, many of them from parents, either urging the board to drop the masking mandate or to keep it in place. And about a dozen people spoke on the issue during the public comment portion of the school board meeting.
One of the emails the board received Monday was from the school nurses at the five MDI and Trenton elementary schools and MDI High School. It read in part:
“Mandatory masking has brought peace of mind to many staff members, students and parents. This transition [to optional masking] will be difficult for many, especially those who have medical conditions. We anticipate some families may elect to keep their children home, and some staff may decide their risk is too high to stay in school.
“In a best-case scenario, optional masking should be initiated when cases are very low in the schools, weather permits windows being opened and everyone is eating outside. (We) school nurses recommend waiting at least two weeks after February break to assess that positive COVID-19 cases are actually still decreasing before making a final decision.”
The nurses also recommended “instituting optional masking when all our schools have negative pool tests for two consecutive weeks.”
Zboray said of the school nurses, “I honor the work that they do every single day…and appreciate their expertise.”
But he said he thinks the school system should follow the guidance of the CDC.