BAR HARBOR — No students or staff in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to participate in pooled testing to detect the disease.
But both are being strongly recommended.
The school system board voted Oct. 18 to ask school administrators to propose additional measures that might be taken to prevent the spread of the disease. Among the possibilities mentioned was a vaccine mandate.
Superintendent Marc Gousse told the school board Monday night that it is the opinion of legal counsel that the school board “can likely impose a vaccination mandate for students.”
However, he said, “The attorney points out this is a political not a legal issue and, as such, the board should carefully consider the ramifications and impact this may have on our students.”
As for requiring participation in pooled testing for COVID-19, Gousse said, “The Maine Department of Education rules make it clear that pooled testing must be voluntary for students.”
School board member Brian Henkel said he thought the board could and should mandate pooled testing or vaccinations for students who take part in extracurricular activities because they are not compulsory, as going to school is; instead, students participate in them voluntarily.
He said students already have to meet certain academic standards and standards of behavior to participate in extracurricular activities. He said it would not be unreasonable to ask students “to also opt into pooled testing and getting vaccinated if they want to participate in those activities.”
“I think that as a board we could do that,” Henkel said. “It’s not mandating vaccines or pooled testing. It’s simply saying, ‘You are having this privilege, and with that comes certain responsibilities, and this is an additional responsibility we want you to take on.’”
But Bunky Dow, the MDI High School athletics and student activities director, said mandating pooled testing or vaccinations for students who take part in extracurricular activities is unnecessary and could result in more pushback.
“Of 230-some athletes and music students this fall, all but 23 were vaccinated,” he said.
Noting that students who participate in activities that involve close contact must sit out for 10 days, Dow said, “A lot of people know that now and are enrolling in pooled testing. So, I think that’s going to take care of the vaccinations and pooled testing.”
No motion was made to mandate pooled testing or vaccinations for any students.
Gousse said that, after the previous board meeting, he had convened a panel of
13 school board members and administrators, an MDI Hospital physician and the hospital’s president and CEO to look into what further COVID mitigation measures could be taken. Before presenting their recommendations Monday night, he acknowledged, “For some folks, our COVID mitigation strategies are not enough, and for others they’re too much.”
Gousse said the first recommendation is “to recommend and advise that all employees (in MDIRSS schools) become fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”
He clarified after the meeting that “recommend and advise” does not mean “require.”
The second recommendation, Gousse said, is “to recommend and advise all employees who are not fully vaccinated to participate in pooled testing.”
He said the schools would soon start offering vaccination clinics for students ages 5-11 who have their parents’ permission,
“I would like to stop and take a moment to remind everybody to please be kind,” he said. “It is not OK for people who may not agree with the vaccination opportunity for students to be reaching out to our nurses or [other] staff with unkind words. That is happening to our nurses and in our community health centers.”
School system board Chair Jessica Stewart added: “If you do not like that we are offering a vaccination opportunity for students, please direct your comments to Marc [Gousse] or to me.” She said the nurses are working extremely hard and don’t deserve to be criticized for the services they are asked to provide.
Gousse said the schools will be looking at the possibility of increasing physical distancing as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“And we believe it is time for school buildings that have not yet done so to reinstate one-way traffic in hallways,” he said.
Finally, Gousse said, it is time to reopen the school buildings to community groups. He said that, unless the board objected, he would “allow the use of our buildings by community organizations, as vetted through the building principal and the athletic administrator, provided these do not conflict with our teaching and learning activities, they don’t supplant any of our student activities or use of the building by our students or staff and that those organizations follow all of the COVID mitigation guidelines that are in place.”
The school board took no vote, but some board members expressed concern that reopening the school building to community group activities would place an undue burden on maintenance and other school personnel.