Students line up outside the school early in the morning.

Students line up outside the school early in the morning.

Photo by Deb Jacques

School officials discuss COVID practices, mask mandates

Oakland County executive explains latest mandate

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 2, 2021


MADISON HEIGHTS/HAZEL PARK — With the new school year underway, officials continue to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, including the commitment to implement the new mask mandate issued by Oakland County, as the state attempts to counter the surging delta variant.

Amy Kruppe, superintendent of Hazel Park Public Schools, and Dale Steen, superintendent of Lamphere Public Schools, shared their thoughts on the matter in a series of emails. Angel Abdulahad, the superintendent of the Madison District Public Schools, did not respond by press time.

Hazel Park Public Schools
Hazel Park Public Schools, which serve Hazel Park and part of Ferndale, have been back to full in-person learning since February.

Kruppe described the protocols that were put in place upon their return, including students and staff wearing masks, desk shields for all classrooms, ThermoScan temperature machines in front of each school, cohorts in K-8, students eating at their desks at lunch, 360-degree cleaning machines sanitizing each room, and desk wipes and hand sanitizer available in each class.

The district has also hired additional cleaning staff and two extra nurses, and continues to offer virtual offerings for families who opted in last month.

“If students were sent home (due to sickness), their siblings in another building were also sent home until the family was cleared of COVID,” Kruppe said. “Our staff, families and parents were great about following the protocol.”

With the increase in COVID cases statewide, and the recent declaration of a mask mandate for all schools by Oakland County Executive David Coulter, Kruppe said the district is complying.

Previously, “We discussed having teacher and parent choice (on masks), unless we were in the red zone and had community spread,” Kruppe said. “Given that community spread started with an uptick earlier in the month (of August) and we were in the red zone, HPPS had already shared with parents and staff that we would be masking in all buildings until further notice. We are confident that masking will be supported, as our students did exceptionally well last year.

“I do not see this as anything difficult for the upcoming school year,” she added. “I believe that everyone would love to be without a mask. However, we need to keep the safety of everyone at the forefront. After all, there are certain things we all have to do when we come to school, like bringing our supplies and books, and dressing appropriately. Right now, masks are just part of what we have to do in our schools.”

Lamphere Public Schools
In Lamphere Public Schools, one of the two school districts that serve Madison Heights, in-person learning resumed in late January.

Lamphere also followed COVID mitigation strategies put forward by the state and county, including daily health screenings, social distancing, mask wearing, cohorts in elementary schools, added seating at lunch, managing traffic flow in halls, regular hand-washing, emphasis on hygiene, placement of mobile hand-sanitizing stations throughout the buildings, regular cleaning of desks and other high-touch surfaces, and the use of Plexiglass dividers, face shields and gloves, as well as MERV-13 filters when possible for airflow ventilation systems.

“Lamphere Schools has followed the guidelines of the Oakland County Health Department since the onset of the pandemic, and will continue to do so,” Steen said. “The district will enforce the mask mandate as outlined within the Oakland County Health Department’s guidelines.”

In-person and virtual learning options continue to be available to all K-12 students in the Lamphere district for the new school year. Steen said it’s been an adjustment, but a necessary one.

“Relationships are the key to a successful school experience. While our teachers and students did a remarkable job during the last school year, there is no substitute for students being with their classmates and teachers,” Steen said. “We are thrilled to welcome back our students for in-person instruction five days a week. We are all becoming more accustomed to the mitigation measures, and are adapting in spite of those measures to reconnect and re-engage our students and families with our teachers and staff at our schools.”

The mask mandate
Coulter, the county executive, said the main focus for the county is to get kids back in 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,” he 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.

“We also knew that our superintendents and our schools were struggling with how to interpret health orders, and we worked closely with the schools and the health department,” he added. “At the end of the day, we think that masks are a very effective tool to help stop the spread in schools.”

The county executive lamented how masking has become politicized and polarized.

“It is my hope that by taking (the decision) off of the superintendents, this allows them to concentrate on what they do best, which is educating our kids,” Coulter said. “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 judgements. It was their overwhelming opinion that a mask requirement would be effective for now.”

A temporary measure
It’s his hope that the mandate won’t be necessary for long.

“The order disappears when Oakland County goes back to being a moderate transmission country, per the (Centers for Disease Control’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,” Coulter said.

He noted that the mask mandate currently only affects schools, but if pandemic numbers return to the spike seen previously in the pandemic, it could also extend to businesses, industries and other entities.

“The virus is very unpredictable, and I don’t have a crystal ball, but public health modeling would indicate that at this point, if we do the right things and take this latest increase seriously, then perhaps it lasts until late September or early October. That’s what the public health modeling would say, but that is no guarantee. It’s certainly my hope, if not sooner,” Coulter said.

On the topic of the delta variant, “Young people are very vulnerable right now. If you’re under 12 (years old), you can’t get the vaccine, so masks are the only tool that you have, and with school starting for most school districts in Oakland County (on Aug. 30), it was imperative that we did this now in our schools,” Coulter said.

He said the vaccination rate for Oakland County residents aged 12-19 is currently only 57.4%.

“Given that the delta variant is so much easier to spread, and more aggressive, I just think at the end of the day we gotta do what we have to, to protect our kids in school, and to keep our classes in-person, where I know the best learning happens.”