TCAPS Extends Mask Mandate Another Month; Will Allow Volunteers In Schools Again
The board members of Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) voted Monday to extend the district’s universal mask mandate for another month, with plans to re-examine the policy at the board meeting on October 25. Several trustees said that while they didn’t believe in masking students indefinitely, they either wanted to see better local numbers before abandoning the mandate or wait for students ages 5-11 to get a chance to get vaccinated. The board also approved the return of volunteers to school buildings for the first time since March 2020, including military and college recruits, dental and visual exam administrators, and classroom volunteers with the consent of the school principal / teacher.
Trustees voted 6-1 to continue TCAPS ‘universal masking requirement for another month, with Trustee Sue Kelly opposed. The board heard more than an hour of public comment before voting on the mandate, with parents on both sides of the debate passionately pleading with the trustees to either lift or continue the masking requirement. Opponents – some of whom protested outside the TCAPS administration building with signs reading “Our children, our choice” and “We are not coparent with the government” – said their children were physically and emotionally under the carrying Masks suffered and that it should be left to individual families to decide what was best for the students. Some opponents threatened legal action if TCAPS did not drop the masking obligation.
However, other parents said the universal masking allowed their students to attend school safely and urged the trustees to extend the mandate. Over 1,000 people signed an open letter to the board of directors in support of universal masking, saying the policy will “reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, taxation of our health resources, and school absenteeism due to illness.” and “quarantines that will help keep our schools open for personal learning.” HT Snowday, a parent of TCAPS, told the trustees that the number of signatories to the letter showed that there was more support than the trustees realized for the mandate. “There is a community behind you in the decisions you make,” he said.
While TCAPS had 48 positive cases in the district since school started – most at Westwoods Elementary School (12), West Middle School (9), and West Senior High (5) – the district got over 90. maintain percent attendance rate, according to Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner. Michigan school districts must maintain an average daily attendance of at least 75 percent to receive their full state aid, a threshold that has forced some schools in the state to close this month due to COVID cases. Board Treasurer Matt Anderson cited the attendance figures from TCAPS in support of continuing the masking for another month with the option to review the data in late October.
“I don’t like masking any more than anyone,” he said. “I want the children to stay at school.” Executive Secretary Josey Ballenger agreed. “Our ultimate goal is to keep our buildings open for personal learning,” she said. “The masking has undoubtedly prevented exposure, spread, quarantines, and loss of learning. Masks are a small compromise for the freedom to learn personally. “
Board Vice President Erica Moon Mohr said the timing to lift the mask requirement is not right because Munson Medical Center is at orange level, its second highest risk category. Currently 50 patients with COVID-19 are being hospitalized on the Munson system, including 26 in Traverse City. Moon Mohr and other board members expressed a desire to either wait until students ages 5-11 can be vaccinated – an option that could be available in the coming weeks – or see improved local metrics before masks become optional. Grand Traverse County is currently rated “High” for community transmission by the CDC, the highest risk level.
Board chairman Scott Newman-Bale said he could offend some members of the public by saying he was not “really afraid of COVID” and believed it posed a low risk to children. But while Newman-Bale said “we have to learn to live with the disease,” he believed the county had to do it “safely and responsibly.” The chairman supported the one-month extension of the guideline, but said he did not want to see an indefinite masking requirement for TCAPS. Trustee Andrew Raymond, who was one of several board members who had to repeatedly ask the audience to stop shouting at the trustees so they could continue their discussion, said he was “exhausted” and knew that other families were tired too. “I understand that creates a lot of discord,” he said, adding that he didn’t like masking his children but believed it was protecting them. Trustee Sue Kelly reiterated some of Raymond’s remarks but said that was why she voted “no” to continue the mandate.
“I think COIVD_19 won’t go away,” she said. “I believe that as a community we need to figure out how to live in it. And I believe that parents can best decide how to deal with the health and well-being of their children. “
With the 6: 1 vote for the continuation of the universal masking, the board members expressed their support on Monday for volunteers to return to school buildings for the first time since March 2020. The move will allow schools to return to having dental and vision exams – which VanWagoner said was an important service for students – as well as military and college recruiters, programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and in-building classroom volunteers. Volunteers are subject to a background check and must also obtain approval from the school principal and class teacher to be on site. The trustees also gave the green light to allowing masked excursions, though VanWagoner said it is still investigating how travel might work feasibly given the current traffic restrictions in the district. Parents driving their own children to an excursion site could be an option, or run short excursions during the day that do not conflict with morning pick-up times and afternoon drop-off times.
“We are at a critical point with the bus drivers,” said VanWagoner. “We’re about to shut down some services.” VanWagoner said he was completing his own tests to drive a school bus this week and encouraged others in the community to sign up.