Mills admin recommends optional masking in schools, childcare settings starting March 9

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The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Maine Department of Education (DOE) will drop its statewide recommendation for universal masking in schools and childcare settings on March 9. 

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration announced on March 2 that the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had completed its assessment of recent changes to the U.S. CDC’s guidance on masking. 

“The Maine CDC has completed its assessment of the U.S. CDC’s revised guidance, as directed by Governor Mills. While it welcomes the simplified recommendations, which take into account important metrics such as hospitalizations, the Maine CDC encourages Maine people, municipalities, schools, businesses, and other entities to consider the new guidance as one piece of information in a holistic approach to deciding whether masking is appropriate for their setting or themselves based on their risk factors,” the Mills administration said via a press release.

On February 25, the U.S. CDC removed its recommendations for universal masking in schools and child care facilities and its requirement for universal masking on school buses. Mills directed the Maine CDC to review the federal changes and consider updates to the state’s guidance the same day.

The new recommendations are based on the stability of COVID-19 trends, according to the administration, including a decrease in hospitalizations and the level of the virus found in wastewater testing. 

During a March 1 interview on MainePublic’s Maine Calling, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said COVID-19 trends were moving in a positive direction, but indicated a decision about changing the state’s masking recommendations in schools would come at a later date. The updates came the following day. 

“This is a scientific process. I don’t want to be hasty. The fact is, when it comes to things like masking or social distancing throughout the pandemic what I fear is we’ve been a bit too late to recommend them as a country and a bit too hasty to move away from them. So I understand that there’s a lot of enthusiasm around moving away from this. I hear that and I want to make sure that we’re being responsive. I also want to make sure that we’re moving at the right pace to be protective and make sure we don’t cause a situation that gets worse,” Shah said. 

Maine has not had a statewide masking requirement in place since June 2021. Without a state of emergency in place, the state government does not have the authority to put such a requirement in place. Decisions about mask requirements have been made by school districts since the end of the state of emergency.

While most school districts in the state opted to follow the Maine CDC’s recommendations about masking, following the February 25 changes to the U.S. CDC’s masking guidelines, some school districts in the state began reviewing and changing their policies before the Mills administration’s March 2 announcement. 

At least 21 school districts in Maine have announced their intention to move away from mandatory masking requirements and towards making masking optional. 

Many school districts that have announced their intention to go toward an optional masking policy are keeping an eye on community transmission rates. On February 23, the Brewer School Department announced its intention to drop some COVID-19 mitigation practices, including mandatory masking, on March 14 so long as lower levels of infection continued.

On February 23, Michael Hammer, superintendent of Regional School Unit 19, announced schools would become mask-optional on March 14 as long as lower levels of infection continued. 

On March 1, Lewiston schools superintendent Jake Langlais announced the city’s school board had voted to implement optional masking on March 14. Following the Maine CDC’s announcement about the changes to its masking recommendations, Langlais announced the optional masking policy may go into effect sooner if there is a change this week to the U.S. CDC’s county map tracking COVID-19 community transmission rates, which is updated every Friday.

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