Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Extends Mask Mandate Another Month; Will Allow Volunteers In Schools Again

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 28, 2021

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members voted Monday to extend the district’s universal mask mandate by another month, with plans to revisit the policy again at the board’s October 25 meeting. Several trustees said that while they didn’t believe in masking students indefinitely, they either wanted to see improved local numbers before dropping the mandate or wait until students ages 5 to 11 have the option to be vaccinated. The board also approved allowing volunteers back in school buildings again for the first time since March 2020, including military and college recruiters, dental and vision exam administrators, and classroom volunteers with principal/teacher approval.

Trustees voted 6-1 to continue TCAPS’ universal indoor 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 trustees to either lift or continue the masking requirement. Opponents – some of whom protested outside the TCAPS administration building prior to the meeting with signs reading “Our Kids Our Choice” and “We Don’t Coparent with the Government” – stated their kids were suffering physically and emotionally from wearing masks and that it should be up to individual families to decide what was best for students. Some opponents threatened legal action if TCAPS didn’t drop the masking requirement.

Other parents, however, said that universal masking allowed their students to safely attend school and urged trustees to extend the mandate. Over 1,000 individuals signed an open letter to the board supporting universal masking, saying the policy “reduces the spread of the COVID-19 and its variant strains, the taxing of our health care resources, and the absenteeism rate in the schools due to illness and quarantines, which will help to keep our schools open for face-to-face learning.” HT Snowday, a TCAPS parent, told trustees that the number of letter signees showed there was more support than trustees realized for the mandate. “You have a community behind you in the decisions that you're making,” he said.

While TCAPS has had 48 positive cases in the district since school started – the most being at Westwoods Elementary School (12), West Middle School (9), and West Senior High (5) – the district has been able to maintain over a 90 percent attendance rate, according to Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner. School districts in Michigan 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 TCAPS’ attendance numbers in his support for continuing masking for another month, with an option to revisit the data again in late October.

“I don’t like masking any more than anybody else does,” he said. “I want to keep the kids in school.” Board Secretary Josey Ballenger agreed. “Our number one goal is to keep our buildings open for face-to-face learning,” she said. “Masking has prevented exposure, spread, quarantines, and learning loss, without a doubt. Masks are a small tradeoff for the freedom to learn in person.”

Board Vice President Erica Moon Mohr said that with Munson Medical Center at level orange, its second-highest risk category, the timing wasn’t right to lift the mask requirement. There are currently 50 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Munson system, including 26 in Traverse City. Moon Mohr and other board members expressed a desire to either wait until students ages 5 through 11 can be vaccinated – an option that could become available in the coming weeks – or to see improved local metrics before making masks optional. Grand Traverse County is currently rated “high” by the CDC for community transmission, its highest risk level.

Board President Scott Newman-Bale said he might offend some members of the public by saying that he wasn’t “really afraid of COVID,” believing it posed a low risk to children. But while Newman-Bale said “we have to learn to live with” the disease, he believed the district needed to do so in “a safe, responsible way.” Newman-Bale supported the month-long policy extension but said he didn’t want to see an indefinite masking requirement in place at TCAPS. Trustee Andrew Raymond, who was one of several board members who had to repeatedly ask the audience to stop shouting down trustees so they could continue their discussion, said he was “exhausted” and knew other families were also tired. “I get that that’s creating a lot of divisiveness,” he said, adding that he didn’t like masking his kids but believed it was keeping them safe. Trustee Sue Kelly echoed some of Raymond’s remarks, but said that was the reason she was voting ‘no’ on continuing the mandate.

“I believe COVID-19 is not going away,” she said. “I think that we as a community need to figure out how to live within the parameters. And I believe the parents are the best ones to choose how to manage the health and welfare of their children.”

With the 6-1 vote to continue universal masking, board members Monday expressed support for allowing volunteers to return to school buildings for the first time since March 2020. The move will allow schools to host dental and vision exams again – which VanWagoner said was an important service for students – as well as have military and college recruiters, programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and classroom volunteers in buildings. Volunteers are subject to background checks and must also have approval from the school principal and classroom instructor to be on-site. Trustees also gave a green light to allowing masked field trips, though VanWagoner said he was still exploring how trips could feasibly work given current district transportation constraints. Parents driving their own kids to a field trip location could be one option, he said, or holding short field trips during the day that don't conflict with morning pick-up and afternoon drop-off times.

“We are critically at a point with bus drivers,” VanWagoner said. “We are very, very close to a discontinuation of some service.” VanWagoner said he was finishing his own testing this week to be able to drive a school bus and urged others in the community to sign up, adding that TCAPS was offering signing and referral buses, benefits, and increased wages in an attempt to attract more drivers.

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