Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS To Make Masks Optional This Fall; Other COVID Protocols Still Uncertain

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 10, 2021

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) is planning to make masks optional in school buildings this fall, part of a COVID safety plan that will incorporate all state and national mandates but otherwise rely heavily on local data for determining protocols. Masks will still be required on buses under a federal transportation mandate, with TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner saying that other scenarios – such as determining when students will be required to quarantine – are still being worked out with health officials.

VanWagoner will meet with the Grand Traverse County Health Department today (Tuesday) to further discuss the district’s return-to-school plan, but told TCAPS board trustees Monday that his current recommendation for fall is to make masks optional in the classroom. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends universal masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, and the state of Michigan also recommends masking inside school buildings, there is neither a federal nor state mandate ordering schools to require masks. VanWagoner said TCAPS will follow any mandates – including requiring that masks be worn on buses – but will otherwise pursue an optional approach when recommendations but not mandates are in place.

Accordingly, VanWagoner said he plans to “start the school year with not having to wear a mask (in school buildings).” VanWagoner said he’s conferred with other superintendents across the region, and that district leaders agreed they had the “most success” last year when making decisions based on local data instead of national trends. Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties currently have among the highest vaccination rates in the state of Michigan, with 65.8 percent of Grand Traverse County’s population over the age of 12 fully vaccinated and 78.6 percent of Leelanau County’s population over the age of 12 fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to the CDC. However, vaccines remain unavailable for those under 12, and the rate of transmission in both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties is currently rated “substantial” by the CDC, warranting an indoor masking recommendation under federal guidelines.

VanWagoner said that even without a mandate, TCAPS will still encourage masking indoors, make masks “readily available” to any staff or students who want them, and will continue following other COVID safety protocols, such as frequent cleaning procedures. He also said TCAPS won't tolerate any shaming when it comes to personal decisions regarding masking up. Board Treasurer Matt Anderson agreed with that approach, saying any kind of backlash to individuals either choosing or not choosing to wear masks should be considered a form of bullying.

While the TCAPS board was required to vote last year on the district’s COVID safety plan under Michigan’s emergency order, that order has since been lifted, allowing VanWagoner to make decisions without a board vote. However, he noted board trustees retain the ability to call a meeting at any time to review the district’s COVID protocols, and can vote on changing policies if they’re uncomfortable with the district’s direction. VanWagoner said he’ll consistently monitor local data in conjunction with health officials, adding that masking protocols could change if either local trends shift or state or national mandates force TCAPS to require masks.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) started the high school fall season this week without any masking or testing requirements in place for athletes. Other school scenarios are still up in the air, however, including determining whether TCAPS students will be mandated to quarantine if they are exposed – or a close contact is exposed – to COVID-19. VanWagoner said he plans to work with health officials on fleshing out a policy, but said at this point he’s “ just not sure where that’s going to land.” VanWagoner noted TCAPS is still planning to offer a virtual school option this fall for families who feel more comfortable attending remotely.

Board trustees acknowledged school districts are facing numerous uncertainties as they try to finalize plans for a fall return. Trends could “change again for the better or worse,” said Board President Scott Newman-Bale. “We’re operating with limited and changing information, as we were last year.” Newman-Bale said he felt “mentally exhausted” by the idea of having to revert to lockdown or universal masking policies, but said the district would adjust as needed. Board Trustee Andrew Raymond, chief financial officer at Kalkaska Memorial Health Center, said a “huge step” toward curtailing COVID-19 spread this fall would be parents keeping students home if they’re showing any symptoms of illness. “If parents are concerned, their biggest defense is getting vaccinated,” he said. “It’s highly effective still, even against the Delta variant.”

Also at Monday’s TCAPS board meeting…
> Board trustees narrowed down a field of six firms who bid on a contract to lead TCAPS through a strategic planning process to two contenders: Northwest Education Services (formerly TBAISD) and Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. Trustees cited past successful working relationships with both organizations as advantages of their proposals, though the board also highlighted potential issues with each firm.

Newman-Bale said he’d want to confirm there wasn’t any conflict of interest with Northwest Education Services since that organization and TCAPS are so intertwined, with other board members agreeing they’d want to ensure a strategic plan that came out of that process was focused exclusively on TCAPS and not the partnership between the two entities. Trustees praised their recent experience working with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates on the district’s superintendent search that led to VanWagoner’s hiring, but expressed concerns that the firm’s bid of $29,500 was more than twice Northwest Education Services’ bid of $14,000. Trustees asked to get clarification on whether Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates’ pricing could be trimmed back and to hear more about both firms’ proposals at an upcoming meeting before making a final selection.

> Trustees went into closed session Monday to discuss a performance evaluation of VanWagoner before coming back into open session to briefly recap the review results publicly. Newman-Bale said the board gave the superintendent a “fantastic review” and were excited about his first year on the job, noting it had been a “really challenging year” to navigate as COVID impacted the district. “You’ve worked really well at engaging the staff and…building a new culture,” Newman-Bale told VanWagoner. Board members encouraged the superintendent to work on “continuing to engage all community members” as part of his role. Newman-Bale noted that modifications to VanWagoner’s contract would be discussed in an open session at a future board meeting, but did not disclose what the proposed changes would entail.

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