Traverse City News and Events

140 Munson Doctors Ask School District For Masks; School Board President Responds

By Craig Manning | Aug. 14, 2021

Over 140 Munson Medical Center doctors are imploring Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) to reconsider its decision on masking policies for the forthcoming fall semester. Signed by dozens of medical professionals from a broad cross section of Munson departments, the open letter – which is addressed to Superintendent John VanWagoner and the TCAPS Board of Education – calls the mask-optional policy TCAPS announced earlier this week “unconscionable” given the recent spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant.

“It is the responsibility of parents, educators, and community leaders to protect the young and vulnerable,” the doctors wrote in the letter. “Taking away the protection of masks paves the way for this virus to spread unchecked throughout our schools and could result in devastating consequences. Our country is currently experiencing another surge, this time with the highly contagious Delta variant, and our local region is experiencing a dramatic increase in hospitalized cases. Average daily hospitalizations of children with COVID has reached an all-time high in our country. Because the Delta variant is so contagious, the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) recommend masks indoors and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all students above the age of two be masked in school.”

The open letter continued: “Masks may not prevent all spread but they are the only protection available for children under the age of 12. Masking is far more effective and impactful when all people are masked, not just some. Universal masking will keep students healthier by decreasing transmission, reducing the number of quarantines, help avoid phases of virtual school, and ensure another year of successful in-person learning. A mask-optional policy will be woefully ineffective at protecting students.”

The Munson doctors praised TCAPS for minimizing COVID-19 spread during the 2020-2021 school year through “a commitment to in-person learning with all possible safety measures in place.” The decision to go mask-optional in the midst of a new surge of the virus, they wrote, is “a sharp turn away” from what allowed TCAPS to avoid harsher in-school spread earlier in the pandemic.

Universal masking needn’t be a permanent policy, the doctors assured. “As cases fall after the peak and if community transmission is low enough, then a mask-optional stance for vaccinated students could be implemented. Over time, and with the support of the health department and pediatricians, schools could ease into a mask-optional policy. Ideally, this phase would come after the vaccine is approved for younger children.”

“We implore you to give serious consideration to the weight of this decision,” the letter concluded.

“The health and welfare of the children in our community hangs in the balance. Bring our children back into the classroom fully masked.”

Also on Friday, the MDHHS issued updated recommendations for Michigan schools, which in turn reflect a recent update in guidance from the CDC. The new guidance Includes a strong recommendation for universal masking in educational environments. “Schools should mandate universal masking for students, staff, teachers, and visitors,” the recommendation states. “CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status. This prevention strategy is crucial to allowing students to maintain in-person learning.”

According to TCAPS Board President Scott Newman-Bale, Superintendent VanWagoner’s recommendation for a mask-optional policy is not necessarily set in stone at this point. “Although we accepted the superintendent recommendation, he has welcomed the board to comment or determine a different path,” Newman-Bale said in response to the letter from Munson healthcare workers. “The wording was meant to be clearly a policy for today that could switch before school starts as more data comes in.”

Newman-Bale also indicated that TCAPS was hoping for guidance from the Grand Traverse County Health Department before making a final decision on COVID protocols for the start of school – including not just masking, but also quarantine procedures for students and staff exposed to COVID-19.

“As a district, we are also trying to think outside of the box for solutions although safety is always the top priority,” Newman-Bale said. “Quite frankly, I do not believe that a volunteer school board, made up of non-medical professionals, should be responsible for creating public health policy. That said it appears we will be and although unfortunate there is a lot of learning to do on our end.”

As part of that learning process, TCAPS has also launched a “Fall 2021 COVID-19 Learning Environments” survey for parents. The survey asks for parental feedback on how parents would proceed with educational plans for their children if masks were to be optional, versus if they were required. The survey will remain open until Wednesday, August 18 at 5pm.

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