UNION — Following a heated discussion from board members, parents and teachers, the Regional School Unit 40 Board of Directors voted to update the district’s reopening plan at their Aug. 19 meeting.

The update requires masks in all RSU 40 buildings if either Lincoln or Knox County are designated by the Center for Disease Control to be high or substantial risk of transmission of COVID-19.

Superintendent Steve Nolan also shared some updates about requiring vaccinations, though the board did not act on any vaccine requirements.

Nolan said that while the board already approved a reopening plan for the district, the U.S. CDC since updated their recommendations and requirements around masking.

The updated requirements are for students and staff to wear masks on buses and while in indoor spaces.

Masks are not required for outdoor spaces, but are recommended for unvaccinated people.

Nolan said there are also exemptions for individuals with a disability.

Due to these updates from the CDC, Nolan asked the board to update the reopening plan to require masks if Lincoln or Knox county are designated to be high risk of transmission for COVID-19.

As part of this discussion, Nolan also shared the results of a district-wide survey regarding masks and vaccinations.

Nolan said about 900 people responded to the survey, with 51% of the district’s families responding and 40% of the staff responding.

When asked about requiring vaccination against COVID-19 for eligible staff and students, 33% of responding families and 44% of responding staff said they were in support.

Fifty-seven percent of families and 39% of staff said they did not support this requirement.

Ten percent of responding families and 17% of responding staff said they were not sure about such a requirement.

When asked about requiring indoor masking, 38% of responding families and 40% of responding staff said they supported this requirement.

Fifty-one percent of responding families and 41% of responding staff said they did not support this requirement.

Eleven percent of responding families and 19% of responding staff said they were not sure about requiring masks indoors.

Julie Swindler, a board representative for the town of Warren, made a motion to update the reopening plan as Nolan requested.

Several board members, family members and staff members for RSU 40 spoke both in favor of and in opposition to this motion.

Parent Natasha Wallace said she was concerned that mandating masks might do more harm than good, especially for younger children. Seeing their teachers’ and friends’ faces is very important for development, Wallace said.

Wallace also spoke about an attitude that COVID-19 was “dirty,” which did not match the district’s anti-bullying efforts.

Board member and parent Brooke Simmons asked what the district would do when parents began pulling students out of schools because they did not agree with a mask mandate.

Nolan said all other surrounding districts were planning some form of universal indoor masking requirements as far as he knew.

Simmons responded that RSU 40 was not those other districts, and she hated when they were compared. “I want to blaze our own path,” she said.

Parent and teacher Eva Benner said her daughter was entering kindergarten this year, and the idea of a mask mandate for her daughter’s first experience with school broke her heart.

Benner said she was confident she knew what was best for her daughter, and that was to see the faces of her friends and her teachers.

Benner also repeated Simmons’ concerns that many parents would pull their students out of the district if the board mandated masks.

Parent Monika Robinson thanked the board for even considering masking.

Robinson said masking was so important for the protection of the unvaccinated children in the schools, especially with the Delta variant.

Board member Morgan Hynd said she thought masks were the best way to keep children safe at school, especially with the Delta variant.

Last year RSU 40’s schools had very few cases of COVID-19, only one outbreak and students were able to attend school in person, Hynd said. She believed this was because of the mask requirements.

The board then passed the motion with a final weighted total of 615 to 385.

Each board member’s vote has a weighted score, according to the student population for their representative town.

In reference to vaccines, Nolan said the board had the authority to require vaccinations of staff or students. The board did not make any decisions on this matter, though several parents spoke out against it anyway.

Nolan said CDC guidance recommends cancelling high-risk activities when community transmission rates are determined to be high.

Football is named as a high-risk sport by the CDC. To avoid the potential cancellation of football, Nolan said he had been in discussions with athletic director Matt Lash to require vaccination in all participants.

The board also took no action on requiring vaccines to play football.

Nolan said he was simply making the board aware of what the CDC guidelines were around high-risk activities like football, and preparing them for how the district would respond if either Knox or Lincoln County were designated a high transmission area.

Some parents and board members asked how the district was legally able to mandate vaccines for a sport.

Nolan said he checked with legal council about it, and the district was able to mandate vaccines for football players if they made that choice.

“Football is not a required activity,” Nolan said.

The next board meeting is Sept. 2 at 7 p.m.

In an Aug. 24 email, Nolan further clarified the updates to the reopening plan.

During school transportation: CDC’s Order applies to all public transportation conveyances including school buses. Regardless of the mask policy at school, passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, subject to the exclusions and exemptions in CDC’s Order. Learn more here.

Indoors: Universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to PK-12 schools is recommended when transmission rates are “low” or “moderate” in both Lincoln and Knox counties. Universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to all schools is required when transmission rates are “substantial” or “high” in either Lincoln or Knox county, regardless of vaccination status. Community transmission levels are updated daily at COVID-19 Integrated County View.

Outdoors: In general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors. CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people. Fully vaccinated people might choose to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised.

Exceptions can be made for the following categories of people:

A person who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, because of a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.).

A person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety or job duty as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations.