Maine students continue to lose learning from confusing protocols, school reopening guidelines
When Gov. Janet Mills announced in April that Maine’s mask mandate was coming to an end, it looked as if students returning to school in the fall would enter classrooms without masks and social distancing.
But hopes for a return to the pre-pandemic normal when students went back to school this year were soon dashed by the recent surge in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19.
On July 28, the Mills administration announced it was adopting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation that all individuals return to wearing masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. While the guidance is not binding to the general public because there is no state of emergency, it was enough to cause many of the state’s school districts to reconsider their policies for reopening.
On August 18, the Bangor School Committee voted unanimously to adopt Bangor School District (BSD) superintendent James Tager’s plan for reopening, which included a requirement that all students and staff wear masks at all times when inside school buildings.
Tager’s reopening plan does include one carveout for what it describes as “students with medical, behavioral, or other challenges who are unable to wear masks/face coverings.” Those students can wear face shields, provided they cover the eyes, nose, mouth and “extend below the chin and back to the ears.”
But that solution doesn’t necessarily work for all students who have disabilities. For Jessica Lundquist’s son Caleb, who has an individual education plan (IEP) and wears hearing aids and glasses, wearing a mask of any kind has resulted in learning loss and depressive and sometimes destructive behavior.
Like many other families, the Lundquists have had their fair share of challenges adapting to the pandemic restrictions.
The Lundquist family is a blended family that includes nine children, four are Jessica’s and five are her husband’s from a previous marriage. According to Jessica, the older children in the family were opposed to the mask mandate and refused to wear a mask if they had the opportunity to not do so.
“You can’t live your life like this,’” Jessica told her 17-year-old stepdaughter who refused to go into a store if she was required to wear a mask.
According to Jessica, the mask mandate changed her stepdaughter. But since it’s gone away, she’s been going out and doing more socially, returning to a pre-pandemic normal.
But Caleb’s problems haven’t gone away with the mask mandate.
Caleb, age 9, is the youngest of the Lundquist children. Last year he was enrolled in the Fourteenth Street School, but this year he’s attending the Vine Street School in Bangor.
As with this school year, during the previous school year he was required to wear a mask. But with glasses and hearing aids already resting on his ears, the mask proved to be too much. Not only was Caleb bothered by the number of things he was required to have on his face, but the mask causes his glasses to fog: a problem giving his hearing impairment.
According to his mother, Caleb began to act out as a result of his frustration with the physical challenges he was suddenly facing at school. Jessica described the situation as a “daily struggle.”
Caleb’s whole personality shifted. He began to swear: something the Lundquists, who are raising their children in a Christian home, don’t allow.
“These kids have learning disabilities and have to wear a mask. Of course he’s going to react and he will say words he’s not supposed to say and he knows better,” Jessica said.
Jessica says Caleb’s frustrations also led him to begin talking about wanting to commit suicide. He would also say things such as he wanted to go to Hell.
“This depressive emotional behavior didn’t exist until COVID-19 or the mask mandate started,” Jessica said.
During the previous school year, when Caleb attended the Fourteenth Street School, Jessica says her son wasn’t offered any kind of medical exemption for wearing a mask.
“I would talk to the principal and I would say this is really hard for him. He has to wear a mask and glasses and hearing aids. It’s a lot of stuff on his ears.”
She says the principal’s response was always the same, paraphrasing their response of, “I understand. I’m sorry. These are the guidelines. This is what the CDC says we have to do. It’s out of our control.”
Without any workaround from the school, the Lundquists tried different types of masks. One parent made Caleb a special mask, but Caleb didn’t like it. An audiologist gave Caleb special buckles that allowed his mask to fasten around his neck, but Caleb didn’t like that either.
According to Jessica, Caleb would say things like, “All day long I have to wear this stupid mask,” or “I feel like I’m being suffocated and I never get a break.”
And Caleb’s frustration is affecting his ability to learn. According to Jessica, all of her other children are excellent readers. Another of Jessica’s children has dyslexia, but she says he can read “like nobody’s business.”
But Caleb has fallen behind since the pandemic began and refuses to read, even when his parents encourage doing so at home for fun.
He’s even broken his glasses so he won’t have to wear them.
“Caleb has an IEP and he is extremely delayed in his reading and he admitted he does not want to wear his glasses and it’s because it’s something else he has to wear.”
Jessica says she’s more worried about the long-term psychological effects of the pandemic than the health risks COVID-19 poses for her son.
According the Maine CDC, as of September 6 (the last time it updated its data) there have been 3,829 cases of COVID-19 in children aged 10 to 14. Of the 23, 943 cases among Mainers under the age of 25, 56 have required hospitalization.
Compared to adults, children have a lower risk of severe illness, which has led some–Jessica Lundquist included–to question some of the policies schools have put in place.
“I would like for Caleb and for parents of other children to have a choice about whether or not they want to go to school without a mask.”
Another question parents like Jessica have is why children like Caleb, for whom wearing a mask presents physical challenges and which has resulted in a behavioral shift, cannot get an accommodation when everyone around them is vaccinated.
“If the teachers are required to be vaccinated, and they’re protected, why do the students have to wear masks? Especially in these special ed classrooms. And then they dictate to you what kind of mask the kids have to have. I really don’t understand,” she said.
Caleb is too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19, as are the rest of the students at his elementary school, but staff at the school has a 94.7% vaccination rate as of August 31, according to the Maine CDC. Bangor public schools in general have a 95% vaccination rate. There have been no cases of COVID-19 reported at Caleb’s school in the past 30 days.
But even for students like Caleb, mask exemptions are still difficult to come by. The BSD does have a policy for students who need an accommodation that isn’t satisfied by a face shield. And the department is clear that nothing in their reopening framework should “be interpreted as preventing a school from making accommodations on an individual basis as required by state or federal disabilities laws.”
The school district says an exemption requires medical documentation and once this is received, it will work with a child’s IEP team to provide accommodations. But the school district is also clear it “believes wearing a mask has become an essential functional life skill” and will only grant an accommodation after it has exhausted a list of interventions designed to acclimatize students to mask wearing. These interventions include “consultation or direct instruction around desensitization, very frequent mask breaks, check-ins with a social worker, abbreviated days while increasing mask wearing capabilities, and positive behavior support plans.”
The BSD policy puts a high burden on parents to prove that their child is deserving of an exemption to the mask requirement. From an administrative perspective, that’s perhaps understandable: schools have a duty to protect the health and well-being of their students.
But even once that high burden of proof is met, parents like Jessica still don’t have any guarantee their child will be allowed to go without a mask. But in some cases, parents like Jessica Lundquist see their children hurt, rather than helped, by a policy that’s supposed to keep students safe.
How would school choice benefit your family? We want to hear your story! Click here to share it with Maine Policy Institute.