TCAPS is issuing guidelines for the optional return of masks on Monday even as community pressure to keep masks increases

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Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) gave parents guidance over the weekend on the district’s mask mandate expiration when students return to school on Monday. The move comes despite mounting pressure from families, health professionals, community members and 10 former board members urging TCAPS to keep the mandate.

In a letter sent on Saturday, TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner states that the district’s mask mandate expired effective January 1. However, he said school boards “strongly recommend wearing masks regardless of vaccination status,” noting that masking will continue to be required buses and in head start classrooms under federal regulations. All TCAPS building and classroom signage will “highly recommend” individuals wear masks, the superintendent wrote, and KN95 and paper masks will continue to be available for students, staff, and visitors who wish.

The district will continue to follow all COVID-19 cleaning and safety protocols, VanWagoner said, and will communicate regularly with the Grand Traverse County’s Health Department and Board of Trustees. When the board members decided in late December to make masks optional from January, they agreed to maintain a policy that VanWagoner will alert trustees and hold an emergency board meeting to review security protocols. VanWagoner said TCAPS will also send an email on Wednesday (January 5th) “with full information on TCAPS ‘virtual options for the second semester and the enrollment process”. The second semester starts on January 24th. Virtual options include UpNorth Virtual LIVE or On Demand for elementary school students (K-5) or UpNorth Virtual On Demand for secondary school students (6-12).

After the TCAPS board meeting in December, Munson Healthcare officials criticized the decision to lift the mask mandate, citing the region’s low vaccination rate in the 5-11 age group, fearing that the Omicron variant could rage through unmasked classrooms. Erica Moon Mohr, vice president of the TCAPS board of directors, urged the trustees on social media to hold an emergency meeting and reverse the waiver decision; this meeting was never held. Ten former TCAPS board members, a group that included five former board chairmen and four former teachers, also wrote to the current TCAPS board asking them to maintain their mandate. The group included Gary Appel, Megan Crandall, Pam Forton, Kelly Hall, Jeff Leonhardt, Julie Puckett, Marjorie Rich, and Frederick Tank, among others; Jane Klegman also added her signature after the letter was first sent to the board.

“Today our students and teachers cannot afford to succumb to the pressure of outspoken personalities in our community who are against the mask mandate,” wrote the former board members. “National and local medical experts have expressed the same views over the past few weeks: Vaccines AND masks are our best defense against widespread outbreaks in the community and the overwhelming of our medical systems beyond their capabilities.”

Scott Newman-Bale, President of the TCAPS Board of Directors, responded to the group’s letter thanking them for their feedback, stating that he could not convene a meeting “at this point due to a lack of quorum”. Newman-Bale continued, “We strive to make the best decisions possible and no trustee takes this lightly. We all struggle personally with this and try not to ignore feedback from a complex issue perspective. The only legal legal allowance is for us to consider the well-being of students in a classroom or in any school-related activity. We are not empowered to address some important issues such as the spread in community or vulnerable populations outside of our student base. In the past few weeks the board has been inundated with hundreds of emails with lots of data and research arguing for and against the need for a mask mandate. While a lot of feedback has supported the masking, many of the arguments go beyond our scope and we can consider simply cannot process all data or are qualified to do so. “

Newman-Bale said trustees are “but not immune to such concerns and share many with the community”. He added, “Personally, I plan to step up clear leadership efforts by those with resources and legal personality to help make broader decisions, including our state and county leaders. We are also committed to ensuring that we continue to do all we can, including methods such as encouraging everyone to be vaccinated and encouraged while providing KN95 level masks that effectively combat Omicron for those in everyone Buildings need and want. Omicron is a game changer that will have a lot of impact on us in the next month, regardless of that decision, and we will always strive to enable personal learning. “Newman-Bale concluded by stating, that he was “confident that this will not be the last turn of COVID” affecting the TCAPS school system.


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