Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Reinstates Mask Mandate; Grades 6-12 Remote Rest Of Week

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 11, 2022

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members voted unanimously Monday to reinstate a universal mask mandate in schools effective Wednesday. Board members agreed the move was necessary to attract substitute teachers back to the classroom, with staffing shortages requiring TCAPS to close school and/or move to remote learning for some grades in recent days. Due to current staff shortages, secondary students in grades 6-12 will remain virtual for the rest of this week, with administrators making a call next Tuesday morning whether classes will resume in person or continue remotely (students have Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day). Elementary classes will remain face-to-face this week unless a shortage requires going virtual.

Board members revisited the district’s COVID-19 safety protocols at Monday’s board meeting after 93 staff members were absent from schools Thursday, requiring TCAPS to close districtwide Friday. Elementary students were able to return to face-to-face learning Monday, but secondary students were moved to virtual learning Monday and Tuesday. Board members decided to keep secondary students remote through the end of this week after administrators warned shortages – caused by a combination of staff illnesses and substitute teachers declining to come in without universal masking in place – would likely continue the next several days.

TCAPS board members previously agreed to allow the mask mandate to expire at the end of 2021, with masks recommended but optional when students returned from holiday break last week. But that decision caused backlash among substitute teachers, many of whom are older retired teachers. Administrators said that nine active substitute teachers took a leave of absence due to the mask mandate’s expiration, while one full-time teacher also took a leave of absence and another support staff member resigned. TCAPS Board President Scott Newman-Bale firmly rejected suggestions made during public comment that teachers were “faking sickness,” saying he personally knew many TCAPS teachers who were either out sick themselves or caring for sick children. However, without substitute teachers available to cover those staff absences, TCAPS will be unable to meet its goal of keeping students in classrooms for face-to-face learning, Newman-Bale said.

“We need subs to show up,” he said. “A large portion of our sub pool is retirees. If they don’t want to come to work because they don’t feel safe, why would they?” Other board members agreed, including Sue Kelly – who has opposed requiring masks but acknowledged doing so seemed necessary to bring back substitutes – and Andrew Raymond, who said that the last week was “definitely a change in circumstances” that merited revisiting the policy. “It sounds like it’s a staffing-related issue that we need to address,” he said.

Even with the board’s decision to reinstate masking, it could still take several days to contact substitutes and get enough staff lined up to get all grades back in classrooms for face-to-face instruction. Administrators warned that deciding whether to cancel school or go remote would likely be a day-to-day decision for the near future, similar to calling snow days. “We still may have to be virtual regardless,” said TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner.

Newman-Bale said he was hopeful the Omicron variant would produce a “quick wave” and then subside, but acknowledged the surge was likely to be a “painful” one. “It’s going to be a rough couple months,” he said, with board members and administrators agreeing TCAPS could be required to pivot between virtual and in-person learning, though all said face-to-face learning was the top priority. “I think at this point we have to be totally clear we really don’t know what the second semester will bring,” said Trustee Josey Ballenger.

To provide a clear metric on when the TCAPS masking mandate will be lifted, Newman-Bale suggested following the timing of the public health order issued by Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department Health Officer Lisa Peacock as it relates to masking requirements for schools. Peacock’s order, last updated in November, currently requires schools within her jurisdiction to have universal masking indoors. Once that order expires, TCAPS could also lift its mask mandate, Newman-Bale suggested. He said the move “shows everyone in the community that there is a process” for deciding when to lift the district’s mandate, and that that process was being guided by a health officer. He recommended Peacock as the nearest health officer to TCAPS outside of the Grand Traverse County Health Department, which he said appeared to be politically hindered from issuing orders or providing guidance to local schools. Other aspects of Peacock's order outside of masking would not be applicable to TCAPS. Board members agreed with Newman-Bale's suggestion and voted 7-0 to reinstate TCAPS’ masking policy and to have the mandate expire when the Benzie-Leelanau order expires.

Also at Monday’s TCAPS board meeting…
> Board members had a heated conversation Monday after Newman-Bale called Trustee Erica Moon Mohr to task for violating the board’s standards of practice, a set of rules governing board behavior. After a December 20 meeting in which trustees agreed to uphold their October vote to lift the mask mandate in 2022, Moon Mohr wrote a Facebook post later that same week calling for an emergency meeting and asking fellow trustees to keep the mandate in place. The post generated significant public discussion and media coverage, with board members flooded with emails. Multiple trustees could not meet on an emergency basis over the holidays due to family, travel, and other obligations. Newman-Bale said Moon Mohr’s post violated the section of the board’s standards of practice requiring trustees to “uphold and support the decisions of the majority of the board once a decision is made.”

“I do feel like what we just went through could have been avoided,” he said of the controversy generated by Moon Mohr’s post. “Social media has rarely ever provided a greater benefit on either side to a level-headed discussion.” Raymond said that while he didn’t disagree with the “merits” of Moon Mohr’s concerns about lifting the mandate, he was “disappointed” in her methods of communicating those publicly outside of a board meeting. Ballenger said Moon Mohr didn’t know the “personal circumstances” of other board members during the holidays and resented the implication trustees didn’t care about school safety or community feedback simply because they weren’t available to meet over Christmas. Newman-Bale noted that no trustees made a motion at the December meeting to continue the mandate, an option available to any board member.

Moon Mohr, who was advised in advance by Newman-Bale that he’d be bringing the issue up for discussion Monday, acknowledged the social media post was a mistake and said she had apologized individually to each board member. But Moon Mohr felt strongly that other trustees had also violated the standards of practice, citing language that calls for board members to “engage the local community and represent the values and expectations the community holds for its schools.” She said TCAPS trustees received over 6,000 emails to date about the masking mandate, including from over 200 physicians, and should have prioritized that input sooner. “I think we failed our community, I think we failed our students, and I think we failed our teachers and staff,” she said.

> Trustees elected new board officers Monday as part of the board’s organizational meeting to kick off the new year. Newman-Bale was reelected board president, while Ballenger was reelected secretary. Raymond was elected board treasurer, a position previously held by Trustee Matt Anderson, while Flournoy Humphreys was elected board vice president, a position previously held by Moon Mohr. All elections were unanimously supported.

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