Students return to Stevenson Elementary School in the Southfield Public Schools district Aug. 30, the first day of the new school year.

Students return to Stevenson Elementary School in the Southfield Public Schools district Aug. 30, the first day of the new school year.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Southfield Public Schools continue commitment to COVID safety

County executive elaborates on new mask mandate

By: Andy Kozlowski, Jonathan Shead | Southfield Sun | Published September 7, 2021


SOUTHFIELD — The new school year has begun against the backdrop of a resurgent coronavirus and a new mask mandate from the county executive for all schools in Oakland County.

Jennifer Green, the superintendent of the Southfield Public Schools district, said that her district will follow that mandate and other safety measures as well.

“The district is requiring that all students, staff and contractors wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status,” Green said in an email, adding that masks will be provided for any student or staff member who needs one.

In addition, social distancing will continue to be encouraged, when and where feasible. Teachers and students will also be provided with portable protective shields or other barriers in class. Each classroom will have air purifiers and hand sanitizing stations as well — the latter are also placed throughout the halls. Classrooms will be sanitized daily, and all high-touch surfaces in the buildings will be regularly disinfected with hospital-grade disinfectant.

Students will be required to wear masks on school buses. Bus drivers and aides will be expected to wear them as well, unless wearing glasses, since it can cause fogging. Buses will have a supply of masks on hand for any students who arrive at the bus stop without one. Students will also be assigned seats on the bus, in case contact tracing is required.


Keeping kids safe
When the pandemic started in March 2020, the district shifted to distance learning for the remainder of that year. Students returned to in-person learning in February 2021 in a mixed format — at the building for the first half of each day and then learning virtually during the second half.

Now the students are back in the buildings full time, five days a week, for in-person learning.

As for remote learning options, the district itself is not offering in-district virtual learning for the 2021-22 school year. However, parents seeking that option can enroll in the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium, or VLAC, through Oakland Schools.

In the extracurricular space, events and activities are still decided on a case-by-case basis, with sports following guidance by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. No parents, fans or spectators are currently allowed at indoor athletic events, and for outdoor events, each student athlete is only allowed two guests per home game.

Green said there have been challenges to education in the pandemic era, such as the social anxiety experienced by students due to physical isolation from their peers. Striking the right balance between safety and socialization has been key. The district also tries to take into account the needs of the community, partnering with outside groups to help families in need.

“This strategy places the focus on the whole child, with the understanding that a child belongs to a family, and that family lives and interacts within a larger community,” Green said.


The mask mandate
Regarding the new mask mandate for schools, Oakland County Executive David Coulter said that the main focus for the county is getting kids back into classrooms 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 judgments. It was their overwhelming opinion that a mask requirement would be effective for now.”


A temporary measure
It’s also 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 and Prevention’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.”