Board of Education trustees and Novi Community School District Superintendent Steven Matthews meet Aug. 25, during the regularly scheduled board meeting, to discuss and vote on the district’s COVID-19 return-to-school plan.

Board of Education trustees and Novi Community School District Superintendent Steven Matthews meet Aug. 25, during the regularly scheduled board meeting, to discuss and vote on the district’s COVID-19 return-to-school plan.

Screenshot by Jonathan Shead


Mask mandate divides the school community in Novi

Residents speak up about Oakland County’s mask mandate in schools

By: Jonathan Shead | Novi Note | Published September 8, 2021

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NOVI — Mask-wearing for staff and students at school became a hot-button issue once again Aug. 25 at the Novi Community School District’s Board of Education meeting after Oakland County Executive David Coulter announced Aug. 24 a new emergency health order, from the Oakland County Health Division, mandating facial coverings in all day cares and vocational, elementary, middle and high schools.

“The main focus for us in this order is to get our kids back to school for in-person learning. Our thought was that we really just can’t afford to lose another year of in-person training, or worse, jumping back and forth between in-person and virtual, remote learning,” Coulter said. “We have seen what this variant of COVID has done in other parts of the country, and it’s very disruptive in an educational setting.”

People eating or drinking; children 4 years or younger; people living with a developmental condition where a face covering would inhibit their access to education, such as students with individual education plans, section 504 plans and/or individualized health care plans; vaccinated teachers working with hard-of-hearing students or those who need facial cues; and people with a medical reason confirmed in writing by a physician are all exempt from emergency health order 2021-1.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county is at a substantial risk for COVID-19 transmission. The county’s emergency mask mandate will expire once the county sinks to a moderate risk level.

As of the date the order became effective, 57.4% of eligible students 12-19 years old have been vaccinated, Coulter said. Children under 12 years old remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccinations. From Aug. 4-17, the county saw 2,740 new cases of COVID-19, with more than 1 in 6 affecting school-age children.

“It’s my hope that this doesn’t last too long. ... It’s just because we have seen an increase in transmission, we’ve become a high-transmission county, and with school starting, that’s a recipe for disaster,” Coulter said, adding that under current public health modeling, if people follow the order, he expects it to last until late September or early October.

“We’re taking this seriously, and if we continue to do that, this will be a short-lived order,” he said.

As superintendents across the county struggled with conflicting data and recommendations to make local decisions on their return-to-school plans, Coulter hoped to take some of the heat off their decision-making process to “allow them to concentrate on what they do best, which is educating our kids.”

Still, it was Novi Community School District Superintendent Steven Matthews and the district’s Board of Education who faced the brunt of concerns that parents, students, residents and even they had regarding the mask mandate.

 

All sides chime in
Nearly an hour’s worth of commentary poured in during public comment Aug. 25 from parents, students and residents voicing their concerns about the mask mandate, or the district’s decision not to enforce one sooner.

Some residents stood at the podium frustrated by what they believed to be a lack of data supplied by the district and the county to justify the mask mandate, while others against the order, like resident Edward Blanchard, were more perplexed by Matthews’ change in recommendation from two weeks ago.

At the Aug. 5 Board of Education meeting, Matthews recommended a mask-optional policy for the start of the school year.

“It seemed like a fast turnaround on that issue,” Blanchard remarked during public comment Aug. 25.

Novi High School senior Sammy Maday spoke at the podium Aug. 25 about feeling like a robot while wearing a mask last year during school.

“Not being able to smile and laugh with my friends last year was hard,” she said. “I never dreamed my senior year would be affected by COVID.”

Parent Laura Case felt her parental right to choose has been stripped away. 

“If someone wants to wear the mask, then they wear the mask. If someone doesn’t want to wear the mask, then they don’t. It should be respected both ways, but it’s the parents who ultimately have authority in what would happen with their children. This is an overreach of authority and an abuse of power,” she said during public comment Aug. 25.

Case felt the district should reconsider the county’s mask mandate and still make it optional in the district; however, doing so could put the district and the individual Board of Education trustees in legal jeopardy.

“Our legal counsel has indicated to us that Oakland County has the authority to issue this mandate; that as a governmental institution, we have to abide by the mandates that come from legally responsible governmental agencies; and if we don’t, then we’d be putting the district at risk. We would be putting you, individually, at risk, because our governmental immunity would be gone,” Matthews said to the school board.

While in favor of a mask mandate in schools, some still took to the podium to express other concerns to the board and Matthews.

“I’m deeply disappointed that you, Dr. Matthews, did not recommend a mask mandate independent of the county stepping in, and I’m equally disturbed by the fact that all signs pointed to this board accepting that recommendation in the face of clear masking guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, CDC and MDHHS,” Christine Pickering, a resident of Novi for 14 years, said Aug. 25. “You’ve challenged my trust, and I’ll be paying much closer attention to the work you do going forward as a result.”

Others in attendance felt their trust in the board and administrators had been eroded, too.

The concerns didn’t stop with the residents. Trustee Tom Smith said he felt “robbed” from making the decision as a board.

“I will say, as the board member that for a long time was the sole board member advocating for our kids to be back in school in person, that as soon as we have an opportunity to vote on dropping this mandate, I will be the first person to vote for that, because it disgusts me,” Smith said Aug. 25.

Board Secretary Willy Mena, an advocate of local control, would rather the district’s trustees be able to make the decision themselves.

“Sure, it makes life easier, because I don’t have to vote on a controversial issue, upsetting half of our community on an emotional topic, but I didn’t run for school board in the hopes of hiding from making tough decisions,” he said. “What I can control at least in part as a member of this school board is what happens in this district, and the messaging that comes out of it.”

The Republican Caucus of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners called the mask mandate “unlawful” in an Aug. 25 press release.

“In October 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against unlawfully instituted mask requirements. On August 24th, the Oakland County Executive, by and through an order of the Oakland County Health Division, again issued a mask mandate on our children. They have taken that decision away from school districts and their elected boards. Government is bound by the law like everyone else and should reverse course on yet another unlawful mandate,” the press release states in part.

Coulter stood by the health order.

“This is a health order. It’s certainly lawful under the public health code of Michigan and Oakland County. There’s zero question that the health officer has the authority to do this,” he said, “and I believe there’s no question we have the moral responsibility to protect our kids and do everything we can to have a safe school year.”

 

More than just masks
The county’s mask mandate may have taken center stage at the district’s Aug. 25 meeting, but that requirement was only one of several items included in the district’s full return-to-school plan.

The plan, approved by the board, includes: following the county’s mask mandate; promoting vaccinations for staff and eligible students; providing and emphasizing sanitation and disinfecting practices; quarantining students and staff who test positive for COVID-19; creating social distancing where possible; increasing fresh air ventilation in classrooms; recommending sick or symptomatic students and staff to stay home; and limiting guest access to the district buildings. There will be no school assemblies, and masks will be required on the bus, per a mandate from the CDC.

The plan items will only need to be followed while indoors, Matthews said, “but we will of course work to ensure that our students interact as safely as possible outdoors, as well,” he added.

As the district prepares to bring back almost all its students, as opposed to only about half last school year, Board Vice President Paul Cook worried about the district’s ability to socially distance.

“We have both time, facility and furniture limitations, but we’re trying to create as much space as possible,” Matthews responded, adding that specific requirements like all desks facing the same direction will help. Increased fresh-air ventilation will continue in the district, as it did last year.

“Two years ago, we would get four refreshes an hour in each classroom. Last year, we increased that, and there were between eight and nine fresh-air refreshes in each classroom,” Matthews said. “Refreshing air more frequently, there is a cost to that, but we believe it’s worth it at this point to continue to help our students and staff.”

Matthews said his staff is looking for ways to create opportunities for seniors around homecoming.

“We would like to make it as normal as possible,” he said.

Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Gregory McIntyre said the district plans to apply for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to help augment the funding necessary for the district’s return plan.

A plan for the district moving forward after Oakland County drops to a moderate risk level was not yet determined by the board meeting Aug. 25, but Matthews said those conversations are happening internally and will be presented to the trustees.

Mask or no mask, Trustee Bobbie Murphy believes the district will meet any challenge in its way.

“This is a very divisive thing, and it makes me so sad that we can’t be united on this, but we just obviously can’t,” Murphy said Aug. 25. “It’s a challenge in our world. It’s a challenge in our community. It’s going to be a challenge in our schools. The one thing that I will say is that we have met every challenge in a way that I think does do our best to protect the kids that we’re entrusted with.”

For more information, visit novi.k12.mi.us.

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