TCAPS trustees vote to extend mask mandates in schools until Oct. 25

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Sep. 28—TRAVERSE CITY — Students, staff and visitors in Traverse City Area Public Schools will continue to be required to wear masks inside schools for at least another month.

On Monday, TCAPS trustees voted 6-1 to extend a mask mandate implemented before the start of school for another month. The board will revisit the issue by Oct. 25 and decide whether to keep the mandate in place.

Superintendent John VanWagoner said the Grand Traverse County Health Department has reported 46 positive "school-associated" COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the school year.

On Aug. 20, the Board voted 5-1 — board Secretary Josey Ballenger was absent — to require mask wearing inside schools through Sept. 27. The trustees originally voted for masks to be optional, but reversed their decision because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases and the threat the emerging delta variant posed to the community.

Trustee Sue Kelly was the lone vote against upholding the mask mandate. Kelly also was the only member of the board to vote against the mandate before the beginning of the school year.

"I believe COVID-19 is not going away," Kelly said. "I think that we as a community need to figure out how to live within the parameters and I believe that the parents are the best to choose how to manage the health and well-being of their children."

Trustee Erica Moon Mohr expressed concern over the stress of the local hospital system, which she said is at a "level orange."

"That means that our bed capacity and that there are operational concerns," Moon Mohr said. "The next level would be red which would basically be an overwhelming level of local cases beyond the capacity of the health care system."

Trustee Flournoy Humphreys advocated for the new mandate to last until January 2022, in order to allow time for children younger than 12 to become fully vaccinated before repealing the mandate, in the case that a vaccine for them is approved in the coming weeks.

Board Treasurer Matt Anderson said he would prefer to implement the mandate and revisit the issue in "short stints" in order to continually re-evaluate local health and attendance data.

Judy Arnold, a TCAPS parent, presented trustees with a petition signed by more than 1,000 parents and community members in the Traverse City area in support of the mask mandate.

"We also are reaffirming and supporting the continuation of the board's decision to follow the recommendations of the CDC, the MDHHS and the Grand Traverse medical community at this time and require face coverings for all TCAPS students and staff, pre-k and K-12," Arnold said, reading from the letter.

Before the meeting, a group of parents and community members gathered outside the Tompkins Boardman Administration Building holding signs in protest of the mandate. Many of the protesters spoke at the meeting.

Several parents and community members expressed concerns over the mask mandate and expressed a desire for masks to be optional in schools.

"This is just disgusting. I don't want to mask [my daughter]," said Emily Taylor. "I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's fair that she gets headaches all the time because she can't breathe properly all day."

Board President Scott Newman-Bale said keeping students in face-to-face learning is "probably one of the most important goals" that the board is trying to achieve.

"Regardless of what everyone thinks and believes I think we all at least have the one common goal which is: we all agree that kids should be in face-to-face learning," Newman-Bale said.

Ballenger said the board's "No. 1 goal" is to keep students in in-person learning situations. She said masks are the best way to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks that force classrooms to move entirely online and they are a "small sacrifice."

"The freedom to learn in person is worth that small sacrifice," Ballenger said. "We do not want to be like other districts downstate and beyond that did gamble at the start of the school year with no masks or optional masks and then they ended up having to go all virtual."

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