Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Extends Middle/High School Virtual Instruction One More Week; Sports OK In-Person

By Beth Milligan | April 10, 2021

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members voted Saturday to continue virtual education for one more week for middle and high school students in the district. Sports and other extracurriculars will be allowed to continue in person, however, with board members saying mandatory testing for athletes and outdoor practices made those activities relatively safe.

TCAPS board members agreed at a special meeting Saturday to take a wait-and-see approach by extending virtual education for one more week for middle and high school students, rather than implementing the full two-week pause for high schools recommended Friday by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Several board members expressed concern about high case numbers in the region, but also acknowledged the potential learning loss and mental and emotional toll on students related to being moved to virtual instruction for two more weeks. Taking one additional week to gauge case and testing data seemed like a reasonable compromise, board members agreed, to allow TCAPS to make a determination about safely bringing students back for face-to-face classes.

TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner reminded board members that just prior to spring break, over 1,000 students were quarantining in the TCAPS district - roughly 10 percent of the student population. VanWagoner said that data from the Grand Traverse County Health Department (GTCHD) showed that as of this week, there are 36 positive COVID-19 cases at the secondary level in the TCAPS district. That includes 9 cases at Central High School, 18 cases at West Senior High School, 1 case at Traverse High School, 3 cases at East Middle School, and 5 cases at West Middle School. VanWagoner noted he asked GTCHD if any students in Grand Traverse County are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and was told there are currently no patients in that category.

Board members reached unanimous consensus early in the meeting that student athletics and other extracurriculars - like fine arts and robotics - should be allowed to continue in-person. Student athletes are subject to mandatory COVID-19 testing, and VanWagoner noted that practices not only for sports but for extracurriculars like band are taking place outdoors whenever possible. "I don't think there's a risk anymore with athletics...that's a subpopulation that's probably going to continue to be safe," said TCAPS Board Secretary Josey Ballenger. The Northwest Education Services’ (formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District’s) Career Tech Center (CTC) will continue with face-to-face instruction and shuttle buses from the high schools, or else BATA passes will be available to students attending CTC programs. TCAPS board members said that they strongly wanted to see all middle and high school students return to face-to-face learning on April 19, and would pursue that direction barring major changes in case or testing data at the end of this week.

As part of his update Saturday, VanWagoner told board members that an estimated 80 percent of TCAPS staff have now received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said that TCAPS is also working with GTCHD to hold vaccination clinics on-site at Central High School and West High School in early May. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for ages 16 and older and would be the vaccine offered at the clinics. VanWagoner emphasized that vaccinations would not be required, but optional to any students and staff who wanted them. Traverse High School students would be eligible to get the vaccine at the Central High School clinic.

Following confusion earlier in the week over whether it was local superintendents or GTCHD who made the initial call about moving to virtual instruction, the Health Department emphasized in a press release Friday that it was leaving the final decision for school closures up to individual school districts. "Rather than continuing with a county-wide pause to in-person education, the Health Department will support individual school systems to make decisions regarding whether in-person versus remote education is best and safest for their students and community based on our recent school data and their COVID-19 response plans," GTCHD said in the release. "Northern Michigan schools have successfully and safely maintained important opportunities for students to learn in person throughout this school year for the majority of the school year. Enhanced mitigation measures were also recommended to prevent outbreaks and a large number of quarantines." GTCHD estimated that the four-day pause in face-to-face learning this week helped avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine of over 500 students based on local positive cases.

Other school districts made the decision to return to face-to-face learning Monday, including Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools (GTACS). "Short of a government shutdown, I intend to keep schools open when we have individual school information about COVID-19 that allows us to serve our children safely," GTACS Superintendent Michael Buell said in a letter to parents Thursday. "If our individual school COVID-19 data trends towards an unsafe level, we will decide to use remote learning. At this time, our Pre-K through Grade 5 data shows nearly no students with the virus, and we know that high school students have consistently contracted the virus in social settings and not in the school setting. Given these facts, and assuming there are no significant changes between now and tomorrow, we will resume in- person learning for all grade levels next Monday, April 12, regardless of what other schools in the area decide for their population."

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