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High COVID transmission means a return to masks in Portland, Bangor schools

The move comes as the U.S. CDC designates Cumberland and Penobscot counties as high transmission areas.

PORTLAND, Maine — As coronavirus cases increase again in Maine, school districts must navigate the final few weeks of school facing challenges including staffing shortages, masking requirements, and the questions about students will end the year.

Last week, eight Maine schools suspended in-person instruction because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

This week, the two largest school districts in Maine announced they will return to universal face masks, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated their counties as high-transmission areas.

"It has stresses, but it's obviously really about the amazing milestones and successes of our students as they move on to the next level," Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said.

Botana said masking came back solely because of the CDC moving Cumberland County into the red, high-transmission tier, but he said doing so will help ensure that end-of-year activities stay in-person.

"We think that the mask mandate is going to help us to do this," he said. "I don't know if its going to ensure us to be able to do that, but it's going to depend on what the data says. ... Hopefully it will move us in that direction."

Bangor Superintendent James Tager said returning to universal masks based on Penobscot County's move to high transmission is keeping his word.

"All along we've followed CDC guidelines for over two years now, and one of the things we stated in March when we went to mask optional, we stated that if we went to red through CDC's indicators, that we would go back and mask," he said. "For me personally, if you put your word on something you want to follow through on it."

Both superintendents said graduation and prom will be in person for now, but masks will be required.

Portland's prom will be held outdoors this year. Bangor said graduation is still planned at the Cross Insurance Center.

Both of these plans are fluid, depending on the local coronavirus situation.

"I don't want to wear one [mask] myself, to be perfectly honest, but we're having our activities, we're having our sports, and mainly we're having our end-of-year celebrations," Tager said.

"Nobody wants to require people to wear masks," Botana said. "Our case counts are really elevated and we believe that this will help to mitigate the spread while people are in school,."

You can review Maine CDCs data on coronavirus cases in the state's schools within the last 30 days here.