On a split vote and over audience objections, Vassalboro School Board members approved requiring students, teachers and staff to wear face masks indoors when school opens Sept. 1.
The “mask mandate” was part of a multi-item school opening plan, and the only part discussed at length during the board’s Aug. 17 meeting.
Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer and Board Chairman Keven Levasseur spoke in favor of requiring masks as a safety measure.
“I don’t think we have a choice to do anything different,” since children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, Levasseur said. Pfeiffer said a high percentage of adults working at Vassalboro Community School (VCS) are already vaccinated.
Four of the 10 audience members argued vociferously against the mandate. They wanted the choice left to parents.
Masks are bad for children’s mental health by interfering with socialization, one woman argued. They are harmful to physical health, especially for children with illnesses like asthma, another said. And they don’t work anyway; there is no standard for an effective mask, and virus particles are small enough to penetrate most masks in common use.
The eventual vote to approve the back-to-school document, including mandatory masks, was 3-2, Levasseur announced. Principal Megan Allen said face shields instead of masks will be allowed with a doctor’s note.
Allen said other procedures in place last year, like temperature checks, social distancing and keeping windows open as often as feasible, will continue to be followed. Pfeiffer added that students and drivers on school buses will follow state regulations.
VCS will also do pool testing, nurse MaryAnn Fortin said. She explained the procedure: classroom members’ individual samples are tested in a bunch, and if there is a positive result individual tests will follow.
Aside from the mask debate, the Aug. 17 meeting was mostly upbeat. Pfeiffer set the tone with his repeated “The good news is:” school will open with students in classrooms five days a week, recess and sports will happen as in the old days.
But he kept adding, “As I sit here now,” promising he and school administrators will monitor updated rules and recommendations from state and federal governments.
Pfeiffer reported staff shortages: VCS needs substitute bus drivers, educational technicians, a sixth-grade teacher and substitute teachers, he said.
Allen reported the summer school, Viking Summer Adventure Camp, had been “hands down a success.” Six staff members and 33 students spent two four-day weeks working on projects tailored to students’ interests.
The summer course was intended to help students catch up after the disruptions last school year. Allen recommends continuing it after a return to pre-Covid normalcy.
John Hersey, new food service director for Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow schools, said that even though school meals are now free for everyone under 18, regardless of family income, it is important that parents continue to fill out the annual applications for free and reduced-price meals.
Currently, school meals are free under a federal pandemic program that will continue through the 2021-22 school year. By a new law signed in July, the State of Maine will take over the free meal program in 2022-23, when the federal program is scheduled to end.
Applications for free and reduced-price meals brought in federal funds in pre-Covid days and will do so again, Hersey explained.
School Board member Jessica Clark seconded his reminder. She added that any parent who skipped the application for fear of taking away meals from another family need no longer worry.
“Jessica, you are spot on,” Finance Director Paula Pooler said.
Hersey also said that the school cafeteria is running into supply problems. As a result, he warned, menus may change on short notice.
Pooler’s report had two pieces of good news. She said the budget deficit that has characterized the school lunch program at many Maine schools for many years has been erased at VCS.
And she said that the unaudited final report for the fiscal year that ended June 30 shows a budget surplus of around $260,000. In addition, she said, after voters approved the 2021-22 school budget, she was notified of additional state subsidy money, as a result of the legislative decision to raise state funding to the long-promised 55 percent level.
Both the left-over money and the unappropriated money will go into the school’s surplus account. As school board members plan the 2022-23 budget, they can decide how much to recommend using from the account.
Director of Maintenance and Grounds Shelley Phillips reported on building renovations over the summer, including transforming the area formerly for industrial arts into two classrooms. She said a specialist in browntail moth control will return in the fall to decrease next year’s outbreak.
Neither the new lighted sign for the front yard nor the generator that will make the school building qualify as an emergency shelter is in place yet, due primarily to delays in getting parts, Pfeiffer said.
Technology Director Will Backman cheerfully described unwrapping boxes and boxes of new computers, and said he expects another 100, enough so every student will have one. Pfeiffer said federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds bought the computers.
School board members heard several other reports; approved many appointments and two requested reassignments Pfeiffer had authorized; accepted four resignations; approved a variety of policies; and rescheduled the workshop postponed from August to Wednesday, Sept. 22.
The next regular Vassalboro School Board meeting will be Tuesday evening, Sept. 21.
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