Elementary school students in the Rochester Community Schools district were all smiles under their masks for the first week of school.

Elementary school students in the Rochester Community Schools district were all smiles under their masks for the first week of school.

Photo provided by Rochester Community Schools


RCS students return

Oakland County issues mask mandate for K-12 students, day care facilities

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published September 8, 2021

 Rochester Community Schools elementary students wear masks during the first week of school to comply with an emergency health order issued by the Oakland County Health Division Aug. 24 requiring masks for students and staff in all preschools, K-12 schools, and school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

Rochester Community Schools elementary students wear masks during the first week of school to comply with an emergency health order issued by the Oakland County Health Division Aug. 24 requiring masks for students and staff in all preschools, K-12 schools, and school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

Photo provided by Rochester Community Schools

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ROCHESTER/ROCHESTER HILLS/OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — Rochester Community Schools opened its doors to students for the first day of school Aug. 30.

Like last year, students were offered two learning options amid the COVID-19 pandemic: the RCS Virtual Campus, which offers online courses taught by RCS teachers, or traditional in-person instruction.

The first week of school for in-person learners included a small glimpse back into what school was like before the pandemic.

Students are no longer required to social distance in classrooms or the lunchroom. At recess, those at the elementary level are able to play with their entire grade, rather than just their individual classes. Students are able to leave their classrooms for specials like art, gym, music and media, instead of having their teachers come to them.

“We made a concerted effort to get back to as close to normal as possible, so you will not see as much social distancing as we had in the past and we will not be having multiple lunches as we had in the past,” RCS Superintendent Robert Shaner said. “The truth of the matter is that we have most of our kids back to in-person instruction, and our facilities simply won’t allow for that inside the confines of a normal school day.”

But with the delta variant running rampant, many familiar virus mitigation measures — like wearing masks, washing hands and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces — have become mainstays at school.


Mask mandate
Less than a week before RCS students returned to school, the Oakland County Health Division issued an emergency health order Aug. 24 requiring masks for students and staff in all preschools and K-12 schools and on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

The order, officials say, impacts around 210,000 students across 28 public school districts and 22 charter school academies, as well as children in day care centers and vocational schools.

“The main focus for us in this order is to get our kids back to school for in-person learning,” said Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter. “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. 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.”

Coulter wasn’t surprised that the order sparked some controversy.

“Whoever makes this decision is going to get heat from people, because this issue, unfortunately, has become politicized and polarized,” he said. “It is my hope that ... taking (the decision) off of the superintendents allows them to concentrate on what they do best, which is educating our kids. They’re not public health officials, and I know that it’s been challenging for them to interpret the data and make these individual decisions, but, fortunately, we have very professional health professionals at the county who are paid and trained to make these kinds of judgments. It was their overwhelming opinion that a mask requirement would be effective for now.”

The county’s mask order for schools remains in effect until community transmission for Oakland County is categorized as “moderate” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least 14 consecutive days or until further notice from Leigh-Anne Stafford, the county’s health officer.

Coulter’s hope is that the mask mandate is not “too long-lasting.”

“The order disappears when Oakland County goes back to being a ‘moderate transmission’ county, per the CDC’s data, which, frankly, we were a month ago. 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,” he said.

Shaner said masking — regardless of whether people think it’s an infringement of their rights or they just don’t want to do it — is the district’s “best path forward.”

“It’s our best path forward to limit quarantine — because if you are masked, your (requirement) to be quarantined is reduced dramatically.”


COVID-19 mitigation
To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, RCS cleans and sanitizes classrooms and buildings at the end of each school day and uses electrostatic sprayers in main offices, locker rooms, weight rooms and other areas as needed.

School buses are sanitized twice per day, following the morning and afternoon routes, and high-touch areas are cleaned between all bus runs.

District officials said air-balance contractors are also on hand to continually inspect and balance air flow for building systems to maximize ventilation and reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants.

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, RCS officials say the person should first notify the Oakland County Health Division — at (248) 858-1286 during normal business hours or (248) 858-0931 after hours — and contact their school administrator.

The individual must then stay home and isolate for at least 10 days from the start of symptoms or 10 days from the test date if asymptomatic, and be fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.

District officials will report positive cases and identify close contacts to the Health Division, which will then place students or staff in the contact tracing system for follow-up, support and resources during the quarantine period.

Masks and vaccination status will limit the need to quarantine when an individual is exposed to COVID-19, according to the Oakland County Health Division.

Those who are fully vaccinated are not required to quarantine if it has been more than 14 days since receiving the last dose in the series of vaccinations and they have remained asymptomatic since the current COVID-19 exposure.

If an individual is within 3 to 6 feet of another person with COVID-19 and both individuals are properly masked, the exposed person does not need to quarantine and can return to school. However, if a non-vaccinated person is less than 3 feet from a person who tested positive, regardless of mask use, the exposed individual must quarantine and stay home from school.

If one or both of the individuals are unmasked and within 3 to 6 feet of each other, then the exposed person must quarantine and stay home from school.

The Oakland County Health Division is currently recommending that people exposed to COVID-19 stay home for 10 days after exposure, while wearing a mask and physically distancing themselves from others. If symptoms develop, county officials said, the exposed individual should immediately isolate through day 14, avoid large gatherings, stay at least 6 feet from others, wash their hands, and get a COVID-19 test.

Those who are exposed to COVID-19 also have the option of taking a COVID-19 PCR test — not a rapid antigen or serological test — at least seven days after the exposure. If the PCR test is negative, students or staff can then return to school on day eight.

District officials said students in isolation or quarantine will receive instructional materials from their teachers.


‘No option’ for remote learning
Last year, Shaner said, districts across the state had a lot of flexibility in pupil accounting regulations.

“We are required, by law, to provide kids with so much instructional time — and the way you provide that is regulated,” he explained. “There was a lot of flexibility when we were in hybrid remote learning last year, and that flexibility has been removed from the regulations. … We do not have that this year. So anyone who thinks that we will be flipping to remote learning relatively quickly, I can assure them that it will not happen. If that were to happen, it would be an order, I would imagine, from the state of Michigan.”

No one, Shaner said, is happy with where we are in the state of the pandemic.

“Nobody wants to be back wearing masks. Nobody wants to have to do the mitigation that we are going to have to do, but it’s necessary for two reasons. First and foremost, we will take every precaution to keep every child as safe as we can keep them. Probably equally as important is to make sure that we keep kids in school with in-person instruction. We all feel very strongly that this is the best way to educate kids … and moreover, there is really no option right now for remote learning.”

For more information about RCS, visit www.rochester.k12.mi.us.

Staff Writer Jonathan Shead contributed to this report.

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