Parents request mask mandate be overturned in SAD 27 schools, board approves winter sports guidelines

FORT KENT, Maine — More than two dozen members of the public, many of them parents of district students, attended a Monday meeting of the SAD 27 board of directors to encourage overturning a district-wide face mask mandate for staff and students. 

The attempt failed with a vote of 3-2.

The board voted 5-2 to enact the mask mandate at an Aug. 26 meeting when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control classified Aroostook County as having substantial or high community transmission of COVID-19.

Several doctors, nurses and other medical professionals attended that meeting to support a mask mandate. They all concurred that masks would slow or even stop in-school transmission and keep kids learning in person in classrooms. 

SAD 27, located in northern Aroostook County in the St. John Valley, is composed of Fort Kent Elementary School, Valley Rivers Middle School and Fort Kent Community High School. The middle and high schools are housed in the same building. 

District surveys sent to community members Aug. 12 and 24 both revealed that optional masking was broadly preferred among SAD 27 parents and students.

A motion by board member Leroy McKenzie at Monday’s meeting to move from mandatory to optional masking in the schools failed with a vote of 3-2.

McKenzie and Gary Sibley Jr. voted in favor of overturning the mask mandate, while Sarah Ashley, Toby Jandreau and board chair Keith Jandreau Jr. voted against the motion. 

Board members Isabelle Lozier and Abigail Pooler abstained from the vote. 

In the Aug. 26 vote, the board agreed to revisit the mask mandate should Aroostook County levels of COVID-19 cases drop below the CDC color coded designation of “red,” which indicates high transmission rates of the virus.

At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Ben Sirois said Aroostook County registered well within the red zone, with nearly 300 positive cases. 

Joey Ouellette, a parent of two children in the school district, requested the board consider returning to the optional mask policy when he spoke during the public participation section of Monday’s meeting. 

Ouellette, who is also a member of the Fort Kent Town Council, requested information from the SAD 27 board comparing the wider Aroostook County COVID-19 cases versus those limited to the St. John Valley. 

“And if you don’t know that, you are holding our children hostage without knowing any of that information, and that’s really bad as far as I’m concerned,” Ouellette said. 

“You have made a serious misstep in violating the constitutional rights of the people of this entire town,” said Jake Michaud, another parent. “We want to trust you with the lives of our children while they are in your care and we no longer do.”

Michaud said the school board is putting healthy children at risk of bacterial lung infections and mental health issues due to the mask mandates. 

“Nobody here thinks you’re being malicious in your actions. You’re obviously believing you’re doing the right thing and that is honorable,” Michaud said. “Somebody is gonna get fed up enough and sue you guys and who needs that.”

Sibley Jr. pointed out that in Florida there are no mask or COVID 19 vaccination mandates. 

“The state of Florida right now has the lowest COVID death rate in the United States and they leave the choice to the people, so all this color designation and everything, we don’t need to put so much emphasis on it,” board member Sibley Jr. said. “This has been taken to a level that is unacceptable. You look at our economy, you look at everything that’s going on in the world right now. We need to use common sense.”

Sibley Jr.’s comments were met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Jandreau Jr. expressed concerns that the district would be moved to remote learning if the mask mandate was overturned and COVID-19 cases increased in the schools. 

Board member Toby Jandreau said he would consider overturning the mask mandate if he learned that positive cases were significantly lower in the St. John Valley than those being reported county-wide. 

“If a medical professional told me ‘I’m in the trenches and things are better,’ that would sway me, because what swayed me in the first place was their advice that things were not okay,” Jandreau said. 

“I guess I put a lot of weight on what our school nurses are advising, what our administrators are advising, what our district physician is advising,” Ashley said. 

Also at Monday’s meeting, the SAD 27 board voted to approve Aroostook County  recommendations for the school winter sports season formulated by Aroostook superintendents, athletic directors and principals. 

Per the recommendations, all indoor sports, other than wrestling, will require athletes, spectators, coaches and referees to wear face masks. 

“We want these athletes to have their seasons,” Sirois said.  

No decision has been made regarding wrestling. 

“The sport of wrestling is considered a high risk sport and the medical records have deemed it unsafe to wrestle with a face mask on,” Sirois said.  

The outdoor winter sports of Nordic and alpine skiing will not require face masks to be worn.

The guidelines could change if the Maine Principals Association, which governs school sports, presents their own requirements. 

“The day that we have an agenda that has nothing to do with COVID we are all going to leave the meeting and go celebrate,” Sirois said to the board. 

The entire meeting can be viewed on the WFKTV Channel 4 Facebook page

Reporter Hannah Catlin contributed to this story.

The first parent survey went out on August 12, and the board used the results to make their initial vote to support optional masking in schools.  At that time, Aroostook County was in a moderate (yellow) level of community transmission according the the US CDC Community Tracker.  Shortly thereafter, Aroostook County moved to a high (red) level of community transmission.  A second mask survey went out on August 24.  The board used those survey results, in combination of advisement from several local medical providers, during a special board meeting to then implement Universal masking, which is where we have been ever since.   The board acknowledged that the majority of parents preferred optional masking, but in the majority of the board’s opinion, the medical advice to go with universal masking was the deciding factor.

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