MSAD 75 interim Superintendent Bob Lucy speaks at the grand opening of Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham on Sept. 17. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Maine School Administrative District 75 will continue to require face masks in all schools until the district’s superintendent deems it safe to lift the mandate.

The MSAD 75 Board of Directors made the decision with a 10-3 vote during a meeting at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham on Thursday, Oct. 21. The board had mandated masks by one vote in August, agreeing at the time to revisit the issue in October.

Thursday’s vote coincided with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the district. From Oct. 5-21, the district recorded 18 positive cases. “We’ve seen a surge in the last few weeks,” interim Superintendent Bob Lucy said. He recommended that the board leave the mandate in place.

Of Harpswell’s four representatives to the board, Linda Hall and Frank Wright IV voted yes, Eric Lusk voted no and Alison Hawkes was absent.

“It is too risky right now for us to not have universal masking because of the way in which COVID spreads. … It could get any one of us sitting in this room. There’s no way around that,” Wright said. “It’s not fear-based. It has nothing to do with fear. It’s just what COVID is. Ergo, it’s incumbent upon us as board members to continue with universal masking at this time.”

Lusk spoke briefly to his opposition during the roll-call vote. “I like Superintendent Lucy plenty, but I don’t know if it’s right to be dumping it on him,” he said.

Also voting no were Bowdoin representatives Brandy Robertson and Kimberly Totten.

Board members had floated alternatives, such as continuing the mandate in the elementary schools while exempting the high school; extending the mandate until December, at which time the board would reconsider; or continuing the mandate until the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention alters its guidance on the issue. But after much discussion, most of the board coalesced around a suggestion by Topsham representative Mary Hobson to entrust Lucy with the decision.

Lucy had shared the latest data about COVID-19 in the district earlier in the meeting.

“I think moving forward, again, I would look at where we are with the data, and is it prudent to take the masks off if we’re still having multiple cases a week and we’re still able to use the universal masking to keep students in school,” Lucy said. “To me, that’s really important.”

MSAD 75 has had 32 cases of COVID-19 in the 2021-22 school year, with 607 close contacts. Close contacts must quarantine, although measures like vaccination and mask-wearing can exempt them from quarantine. Of those 607 close contacts, 453 were exempt from quarantine — 242 because of universal masking.

The meeting was contentious from the outset, when board Chair Holly Kopp said she would not start the meeting until everyone in the room was wearing a mask.

During more than an hour of public comment before the vote, many speakers ignored the one-minute limit and Kopp’s gavel. A few attendees jeered or shouted in response to comments, despite Kopp’s calls for decorum.

A survey conducted from Oct. 13-20 showed that 77.36% of staff and 59.77% of parents or guardians supported a mask mandate. At the meeting, the majority of the speakers — and nearly all the Harpswell speakers — favored a mask mandate.

Margaret York, a Harpswell resident and senior at Mt. Ararat High School, said she would not feel safe at school without universal masking.

“Both my parents have serious heart conditions. So do I, and my grandparents are in their 90s,” York said. “The last time I politely asked someone to pull up their mask, I got coughed on as a joke.”

“I don’t feel safe in this school unmasked with people who think this pandemic is funny,” she said. “I’m scared to go to school and I shouldn’t have to feel like that.”

Not all students favor masks.

Jacob Haskell, another student at the high school, said that all the students he has spoken to would prefer to have a choice.

“No one wants to wear a mask unless you are planning on living the rest of your life in fear of a disease that is not going away anytime soon,” Haskell said.

Harpswell resident Susan Horowitz said the mandate creates an educational opportunity.

“We have to bring up people who care about each other and about our community, so the mask mandate is a wonderful opportunity to see that we can teach our young people to care for others,” Horowitz said.

Some board members and speakers said they wanted to refocus the board’s attention on education, rather than angry and time-consuming debates about masks.

Holly Blanc, of Bowdoin, said that she left the district after 20 years as a teacher because of the animosity on display at the meeting.

“The divide, the lack of morals, the lack of empathy being shown towards other humans in this room is disgusting. … It’s truly disturbing how people are treating other humans in this room, and it’s been going on for years,” Blanc said.

Kopp expressed a desire to move on from the mask debate.

“I would be in favor of continuing our mandate … and having our superintendent come back to us with the recommendation to discontinue masking when we see a change in what’s happening,” Kopp said. “That’s what we’re paying our administrators to do.”

“I am tired of responding to hundreds of emails, and this is not what I want to be doing,” Kopp said. “I want to talk about, what are the goals of this district? Where do we want to be in five years? You know, we’ve got work to do, and we’re consumed, yet again, with hours talking about masking. I’m ready for us to move on.”

In addition to Harpswell, MSAD 75 includes Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Topsham.