UNION — Following a lengthy meeting with impassioned speeches and several failed motions, the Regional School Unit 40 Board of Directors determined masks would be optional in the district starting immediately, unless the state declared a health emergency.

Parents, students, staff and community members expressed their unhappiness with the mask mandate and demanded the board change the policy at the Friday, May 13 meeting.

Laurie Lee of Friendship, an administrative assistant at Medomak Middle School, read a statement prepared by a collective group of colleagues from the district. “We have seen the effect masks have on our students and colleagues,” she said. Lee said she and her fellow RSU 40 employees wanted masks to be optional.

She compared the mask mandate which started Monday, May 9, to flipping a switch. “Classrooms were becoming battlegrounds. Children were being sent home. Education took a back seat.”

Stephanie Mayo of Waldoboro said she was frustrated and disappointed with the reinstatement of the mask mandate. She said it was increasingly clear that masks had a “detrimental effect” on children, and that masks were not as effective as once thought at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Bill Moody of Waldoboro also said masks were harmful to children, and called the mandate “an act of self-harm as a requirement for employment and education.”

Moody said the community demanded no more mask mandates, and said perhaps the courts could decide this issue if the board was unable to.

Samantha Simmons of Friendship said while she was not anti-vaccine or anti-mask, she also asked that the board make masks optional moving forward. She said her own children’s mental health had improved since masks became optional. “Kids are smiling again and we can see those smiles.”

Simmons also pointed out there were no federal or state mask mandates in place.

Ross Libby of Waldoboro said the district must stop playing “this dangerous game of mask on, mask off.” Libby said the current policy appears to be mind control, and the district should instead keep masks optional.

“Act on the will of the people who elected you, or we will find someone who will,” Libby commented.

Several other parents and students also spoke against the mandatory mask policy.

Superintendent Steve Nolan explained why the mask mandate had gone into effect on May 9 and ended Thursday night, May 12.

Nolan explained the mandate was due to high community transmission levels in Lincoln and Knox County, and was put in place to comply with the district’s policy of following US CDC guidelines for preventing COVID-19.

These guidelines call for mandatory masking when community transmission levels are high. The mandate ended when community transmission levels in Knox and Lincoln County were no longer high.

Nolan also explained that masking is combined with other guidelines to help the district schools stay open for in-person learning. “No one strategy by itself is the best,” he said.

Members of the board pointed out that surrounding local districts were not requiring masks.

After a private executive session for advice from legal counsel, the board began taking action on the mask mandate.

Board member Morgan Hynd said she wanted to make it very clear to those in attendance that the board continued to have full confidence in Nolan.

“He was following the guidelines as were recommended by the school board,” Hynd said. “He did not make any decisions outside of what this board allowed him.”

The first motion, from board member Brooke Simmons, was to make masks optional at all RSU 40 schools and busses effective immediately.

Board member Julie Swindler said she felt “completely torn” about the issue. She felt it would be prudent to continue to use some kind of guide to measure if masking was needed. “Doing what’s right is not often easy or popular,” she said.

The motion failed 423-453.

Board member Guy Bourrie made the next motion to continue with the current guidelines.

“We follow the CDC’s recommendations,” Bourrie said. “When we go in high, we wear masks. We will require it if they recommend it.”

This motion failed 398-478.

Other motions were put forward regarding masks, but either failed to gain a second or were withdrawn after discussion.

Board member Randy Kassa then moved to make masks optional is RSU 40 schools until or unless the state of Maine or the Maine Department of Education declares a health emergency.

Simmons requested the policy to be effective immediately so that weekend’s prom could be mask optional.

This motion passed 547 to 329. The audience applauded the board’s decision.

Swindler and Hynd then asked that the district continue to communicate when transmission levels were high, and to provide surgical or N95 style masks for those who do wish to mask.

“I think it’s appropriate for us if it’s going to be optional to make those high-quality masks available,” Hynd said.

The next board meeting is Thursday, May 19 at 7 p.m. in the central office in Union.