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Return to School Plan Approved w/Masks Required

At its summer meeting on August 11, the Sanford School Committee voted 3-2 to approve the School Department’s Safe Return to School and Continuity of Instruction Plan.

Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson presented the Plan, which outlines the steps the Department is taking to bring all students back to school full time this fall, while maintaining safety precautions to keep Covid-19 transmission as low as possible. Those precautions include requiring all students to wear masks indoors and on buses, and all staff to wear masks when they are present with students indoors. Masks will not be required outdoors. Face shields are offered as an alternative for students and staff with documented medical or behavioral challenges related to mask wearing.

A remote learning program will be available for students who request it, and provide medical documentation that identifies the medical necessity for remote learning. This letter outlines the steps parents need to take to qualify their student for remote learning.

Committee members heard input from several parents who were in attendance, as well as others on Zoom and still more by email. The vast majority supported parental right to choose whether their children wear masks or not. Many spoke of the difficulty their kids have had with anxiety and isolation related to mask wearing, and said it contributed to them falling behind in their studies. One high school student said he found masks distracting and uncomfortable, while another said they caused anxiety and limited social interaction.

Committee members each gave their opinion on the masking issue. Amy Sevigny advocated for parental choice. She said children are not learning the facial cues that enable them to read other people’s reactions. She touted York County’s vaccine numbers, and the low numbers of children that have been affected by the virus. She recommended beginning the school year without the mask requirement, and doing pool testing to monitor cases.

Paula Cote pointed out that either choice would cause some parents to keep their kids out of school, but said “the only fair option is to have parents choose.” She said the benefits to mental health, and social and emotional development outweighed the risks of the virus. Learning growth and the students’ ability to concentrate and enjoy school were other factors to consider, she added. She agreed with Ms. Sevigny that pool testing should be implemented.

John Roux called this one of the tougher decisions he has had to make in his years on the School Committee. He said there were too many unknowns about the virus at this point, and that it would be better to have kids start off the year wearing masks, and then take them off if statistics show that it is safe to do so. He pointed out that the district has 3,300 students, and although the majority of parents who spoke did not want masks, they weren’t necessarily representative of the whole. “The vocal minority are usually the ones you hear from,” he said.

Jonathan Mapes agreed that it would be better to be safe than sorry. “I support masking and hope we can take them off at some point, but I think we should start with them,” he said. He stated his concern that, if only some students were wearing masks, they might be bullied by others into taking them off.

Chairman Don Jamison got emotional talking about how hard the pandemic has been on kids. He stressed that the administration did not want to do a mask mandate, but felt it was the best way to keep everyone safe: “If you can save one person’s life by wearing masks, is that too much to ask?” He said he supported Mr. Nelson and his team, who are in frequent contact with the CDC and medical professionals, for the latest guidance.

The conversation then turned to how to determine when it is safe to remove the mask mandate. Mr. Nelson pointed out that the CDC’s designation of community transmission in York County has gone back and forth between “Substantial” and “Moderate.” Ms. Sevigny said the issue should be revisited at each School Committee meeting, and suggested adding another meeting before the next scheduled one on September 13.

The first day of school for grades 1-9 is August 30. Grades 10-12 begin on the 31st.

Read the full Safe Return to School and Continuity of Instruction Plan here.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

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