Traverse City News and Events

Commissioner, Health Officer Have Tense Exchange Over Schools Going Remote, Threats To Health Staff

By Beth Milligan | April 8, 2021

Grand Traverse County Commissioner Brad Jewett sharply criticized a decision to move local middle and high schools to virtual instruction this week during a COVID-19 update at the commission's Wednesday meeting. An ensuing tense exchange between Jewett, other commissioners, and Grand Traverse County Health Department Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger revealed that the Health Department recommended but did not mandate the school closures, and that health staff have received repeated threats - including this week - that were serious enough to merit contacting law enforcement.

Jewett said he received "several" angry calls from parents this week over receiving late notice Monday that classes would be going virtual Tuesday morning. Jewett said that only giving 15 hours' notice to parents was "bullcrap," and that it didn't make sense to keep middle and high school students home when many of those households also have elementary students who are still attending face-to-face classes. "There is really not much logic behind these decisions," said Jewett. He said that shutdown efforts to control COVID-19 were ineffective and that Michigan should stop trying to contain the disease and reopen for business.

During the commission update, Hirschenberger clarified that the Health Department did not mandate the school closures, but instead gave input to superintendents about moving to virtual instruction - a move that was supported by all because of the skyrocketing number of local cases and hospitalizations, she said. Because additional state funding is available to schools that offer at least 20 hours a week of in-person instruction, schools asked the Health Department to use "directed" language in its recommendation to ensure the districts didn't lose funding. Traverse City Area Public Schools put out a press release stating that middle and high schools were going remote based on "input" from the Health Department, while Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools said in an email to staff and families that it received a "directive" from local public health officials to move to online learning.

The public perception that the Health Department mandated remote learning generated threats to staff this week, said Hirschenberger, which were referred to law enforcement. She said that throughout the pandemic, health department employees have been "yelled at, sworn at, screamed at, and threatened," a situation she said remained a serious ongoing concern. Jewett said no employees should ever be threatened, but that parents were understandably frustrated about the handling of school closures. Commissioners Bryce Hundley and Betsy Coffia said that the board needed to take the threat of violence against county employees seriously and should not brush past staff concerns.

"They are doing their best to keep the county safe," said Hundley. Coffia said she thought commissioners were "glossing over the fact" that Hirschenberger and her staff were receiving "threats to their lives," adding: "I believe this board should not take that lightly." Coffia said that not condemning such threats in strong terms would send a public message that such behavior was acceptable or not taken seriously by the commission.

County staff said they would share Jewett's concerns about the timing of announcements for changes in learning with school superintendents. According to Hirschenberger, the Health Department will be reconvening with school leaders Friday to evaluate options for the next week. Middle and high schools are currently set to return to face-to-face learning Monday, but that could be delayed depending on case data for the region.

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