Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Changes Course, Will Require Universal Masking

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 20, 2021

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members voted Friday to adopt a universal masking policy for the start of the school year, reversing course from a previous planned direction of making masks optional. The policy will be in effect through at least September 27, at which point the board will revisit local data and determine how to proceed for the rest of fall. Trustees also voted to offer mask-optional classrooms for preschool-fifth grade students at the Interlochen Early Childhood Center & Interlochen Innovation Center, though families will need to provide their own transportation to the school.

Board members listened to over an hour of public comment at a special meeting Friday from nearly two dozen speakers arguing both for and against a mask mandate in classrooms. TCAPS is already mandating masks on school buses as required under federal transportation guidelines, but Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner had recommended making masks optional in school buildings. After the TCAPS board discussed that recommendation at a meeting earlier this month, seventeen pediatricians from three area children’s clinics and over 140 Munson Medical Center doctors wrote publicly to the board pleading with trustees to implement universal masking, citing concerns about the spread of the Delta variant and the lack of ability for students under 12 to get vaccinated.

Dr. Christopher Ledtke, an infectious disease specialist with Munson Medical Center, reiterated those concerns to trustees Friday. Ledtke said he understood school board members were in a difficult spot as volunteer trustees without medical backgrounds who weren’t equipped to make healthcare decisions. But “we are equipped to make these decisions (as doctors), and we unequivocally support universal masking in schools,” he said. “Face masks are still the second-best option we can offer students (after vaccination). Masking works when everyone is masked…and masked well.” Without universal masking, Ledtke predicted a “chaotic return to school” that would “inevitably” lead to COVID-19 outbreaks and quarantining throughout the student body.

Parents expressed frustration over the possibility of both required and optional masks, with several parents stating they believed masks were ineffective, a violation of individual rights, and emotionally draining for kids to wear all day. “We also have to consider the psychological damage these kids will receive,” said Carissa Schugars, a parent of three TCAPS students. Other parents – including two mothers of immunocompromised children – argued that a lack of universal masking would make it impossible for their students to safely attend school, effectively banishing them from the classroom. “Masking in my opinion is the easiest part of this whole pandemic,” said Rebecca Howe, whose daughter has a lung disease. “Masking equals freedom to us.”

VanWagoner said a recent survey distributed to parents requesting their feedback on optional and required masking generated almost 4,000 responses, with the results showing “mixed” feedback similar to the divided public comment at board meetings. TCAPS trustees acknowledged that most parents were trying to make the best decisions for their students and that the population at large is experiencing a high level of tension and fatigue 18 months into the pandemic. Trustees blasted Grand Traverse County’s board of commissioners for passing a vaccine resolution this week that curtails the local health department’s messaging and response to the pandemic, saying that the politicization of policy-setting and the health department’s refusal to take the lead on providing guidelines to school districts put trustees in an impossible position. Board President Scott Newman-Bale called it a “dereliction of duty,” while Vice President Erica Moon Mohr said the county’s actions were a “complete catastrophe” for school leaders. “County commissioners have put us in a really, really tough situation,” she said.

Without the lead of the health department, trustees said they felt they had to set their own guidelines to protect students as best they could, voting 5-1 to adopt universal masking in school buildings through September 27. The board will meet on that date – roughly three weeks into the school year – to review the latest numbers and determine how to proceed. Board Treasurer Matt Anderson said the district would be able to “get a lot more local data about what is actually happening and transpiring in our local community” over the next month, and could monitor how other school districts in the region with optional mask policies are performing at that point. Trustees clarified under the new policy that masks will not be required outdoors at schools, that vaccinations are not mandatory for eligible staff and students, and that COVID-19 testing is currently not required in the district, including for athletics.

Trustee Sue Kelly was the sole ‘no’ vote against universal masking, saying she didn’t believe such a policy decision was the purview of the school board. “I believe 100 percent the parents have the right to make the decision that’s best for their kids,” she said. Board Secretary Josey Ballenger was absent Friday, but sent an email to fellow trustees saying she was supportive of a risk-based approach to requiring masks based on local transmission levels.

VanWagoner said there was enough interest expressed by parents in the masking survey to create a separate mask-optional program for preschool-fifth grade students at the Interlochen Early Childhood Center & Interlochen Innovation Center. VanWagoner said the district had the staff and resources to support such a program, though families would have to provide their own transportation to the school. Depending on the demand for each grade, some grades could potentially be combined into shared classrooms at Interlochen. Trustees voted unanimously to authorize VanWagoner to begin offering enrollment in the program and to reach out families who expressed interest in the survey. VanWagoner told The Ticker after Friday's meeting that TCAPS will post enrollment information about the program on the district's website by Monday, and will determine whether to proceed with the mask-optional offering based on response. If there’s enough demand, TCAPS could possibly also offer a second east-side option at the former Bertha Vos school, according to the superintendent.

VanWagoner also noted at Friday's meeting that he was extending the enrollment deadline for the district’s virtual school offerings through Wednesday to give parents more time to make final decisions based on the updated guidelines. VanWagoner told trustees that based on current numbers, he thought it was likely there will only be enough interest to offer an on-demand and not a live virtual option this fall.

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