MOULTONBOROUGH — Voters on Wednesday rejected an effort to end a mandatory face mask policy in Moultonborough schools.

The school board requires masks be worn inside schools and on buses when there is a high level of COVID-19 community transmission in Carroll County, as there is now according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Casting ballots at a 6:30 p.m. special meeting, 156 people voted to make face masks optional, and 208 people voted against changing the existing policy, said School District Moderator Paul Punturieri.

School Board Chair Patrick Hart said it’s important to be able use all strategies for keeping students safe. He wants to avoid the sort of outbreak that would force remote learning.

He said the vote shows there continues to be a strong divide among voters about the best approach for pandemic prevention.

“It shows that we as a board and a town still have work to do to bring parties together,” he said.

Those in support of changing the policy have been outspoken at school board meetings and elsewhere.

“It’s like that in a lot of cases,” Hart said. “You’ll get a vocal group, strong in their beliefs and that’s absolutely fine.”

People who voted in the Moultonborough Academy Community Auditorium were asked to wear face masks, but many refused to do so. Those without masks were asked to sit on one side of the room.

The voting was kept open for an hour to reduce crowding.

Residents were generally civil, Hart said.

“There was a little tension at the end, some small heckling, but it didn’t devolve into anything too serious,” he said.

Paige Sturgeon, who has two teenagers at the high school and wanted to end the mandatory mask policy, said she was saddened by the outcome.

“We had a lot of people who were in support of us but didn’t show up to vote,” she said. “We will continue to work for respecting the needs of all children and families and won’t let this discourage us.

“Kids are the most important thing. They are our future. We want to provide them freedom and choice and don’t want that taken away.”

She said there will be opportunities to continue to pursue their goals, including in the next school board election.

“We will continue the marathon. It’s just a longer journey than expected," she said. “We hope other communities that are trying this do not get discouraged.”

The special meeting was held under a state statute following a petition drive. A school district attorney said the school board is in charge of district policy and the vote was advisory only. Meeting proponents disputed this and said the outcome would be binding.

Petition drives for special meetings on mask use are under way in several school districts across the state, including the Governor Wentworth Regional School District, which covers Brookfield, Effingham, New Durham, Ossipee, Tuftonboro, and Wolfeboro.

A petition drive in the Inter-Lakes School District failed to get the required number of signatures.

The CDC said as of Thursday there were 139 cases of COVID-19 in Carroll County, a 6.86 percent positivity rate, three new hospital admissions and the level of community transmission is high. A total of 70.5 percent of the eligible population in the county has been fully vaccinated.

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