January 29, 2023

INDAC

Keep Fit & Healthy

Auburn schools health and safety subcommittee to recommend continuing universal masking

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AUBURN — The Auburn school district health and safety subcommittee will recommend that the School Committee vote Wednesday to continue universal masking for at least two more weeks.

While members of the 10-person subcommittee agreed that public health data indicates improving conditions, which may soon allow for optional masking, they were wary of changing the policy too quickly without adequate planning.

Many members of the subcommittee — a mixture of school staff, district officials and health professionals — said they also wished to see continued improvement among school and community health data.

COVID-19 cases among the school community have historically spiked in the weeks following school breaks.

Setting an “arbitrary” date to begin optional masking would be a “dangerous proposition,” said Daniel Rausch, a physician at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and a member of the subcommittee.

The School Committee has the final say on school policies. It is possible, although unlikely, that the committee will scrap the committee’s recommendation and vote on its own proposal.

Still, the state is planning to release updated mask recommendations for schools on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services told the Portland Press Herald. It is possible this recommendation could influence the committee’s decision.

Chief among the subcommittee’s concerns was the possibility of moving to optional masking too quickly and later needing to backtrack if cases begin rising again.

“It will be another mountain I don’t know we can get up again,” Edward Little High School Principal Scott Annear said.

The subcommittee plans to specify the circumstances under which the district might return to universal masking together with an optional masking recommendation.

“There needs to be a concrete reason we do what we do,” Ward 2 School Committee representative Pamela Hart said.

However, the subcommittee was unsure which public health metric on which to base the decision.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention county transmission designations was a popular choice among members, but some, including at-large School Committee representative and epidemiologist Pamela Albert, expressed concerns that the data did not accurately represent COVID-19 transmission in Maine.

A backlog of COVID-19 tests means that the state is counting individuals who may have already recovered from COVID-19, likely inflating the transmission level, she explained.

Some school employees also said they did not want to flip-flop between universal and optional masking if the CDC indicator were to shift between high and medium transmission each week.

Across the bridge in Lewiston, school officials voted Monday to begin optional masking on March 14, with the caveat that Superintendent Jake Langlais could accelerate or delay the policy change if public health indicators change.

In the two weeks until its next meeting on March 15, Auburn health and safety subcommittee members plan to continue monitoring public health data, consider which metric to inform the district masking policy, and ensure medically vulnerable students and staff have access to high quality masks when the district proposes optional masking.

Under the subcommittee’s recommendation, Superintendent Cornelia Brown would retain the ability to change the masking policy at will.

The School Committee will discuss the recommendation at their Wednesday meeting on the second floor of Auburn Hall at 6 p.m.


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