Fresh off the bus, students at Doherty Elementary School head into class Sept. 1.

Fresh off the bus, students at Doherty Elementary School head into class Sept. 1.

Photo by Deb Jacques

West Bloomfield, Walled Lake schools return to class with mandatory masks

By: Tiffany Esshaki | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published September 1, 2021

 Tiffini Seldon, of West Bloomfield, comforts her 6-year-old son, Dylan, who was headed into the classroom for the first time. The first grader completed his kindergarten year online, and he and mom both had trouble saying their goodbyes.

Tiffini Seldon, of West Bloomfield, comforts her 6-year-old son, Dylan, who was headed into the classroom for the first time. The first grader completed his kindergarten year online, and he and mom both had trouble saying their goodbyes.

Photo by Deb Jacques


WEST BLOOMFIELD/WALLED LAKE — Folders, pencils and new sneakers all took a backseat last week to the most important back-to-school item for West Bloomfield School District and Walled Lake Consolidated Schools students: masks, of course.

In late August, just a couple weeks before the start of school, Oakland County’s Health Division announced that it would enforce its own mask mandate for all schools in the county, superseding any previous decisions made by individual districts.

“We 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,” said Oakland County Executive David Coulter. “At the end of the day, we think that masks are a very effective tool to help stop the spread in schools.”

Coulter went on to explain that the goal with masking is multi-pronged: not only are they looking to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the even more transmissible delta variant, but masks will change tracking and quarantine procedures that would otherwise keep entire classes of kids home for weeks after a potential exposure.

“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.”

Of course, not everyone is pleased with the decision. Dozens of parents gathered outside of the Health Department building in Pontiac Aug. 25, the morning after the countywide mandate was announced, to protest the move.

Even some members of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners — specifically, the  commission’s Republican caucus — voiced opposition to the Health Department making masks mandatory in schools for all students and staff.

“I was very upset when I heard of this decision 30 minutes before the press release went out and a day before my daughter was to start school,” Commissioner Michael Spisz, R-District 3, who also serves as the board’s minority caucus chair, said in a press release. “I have requested all the data and facts used to make such a decision from the county executive and Health Department. Also, if this is such a problem in our schools, which have not even started yet, why such a narrow order when other age groups have a higher infection rate? I do not appreciate being told how to raise my children or keep them safe.”

Coulter responded to the caucus’ dissent with further assertion that data from the Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support face coverings for all individuals.

The CDC cites at least four studies in which face coverings proved to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection by 70% or more during an exposure. The most recent study, reported in July, involved two symptomatically ill hair stylists working at a salon in Missouri where masks were mandatory for all staff and clients. Researchers from CoxHealth hospitals, Washington University, the University of Kansas and the Springfield-Greene County Health Department worked together to trace contacts and, of the 67 clients who responded, they found that none of the masked clients who came into contact with the infected but masked stylists contracted the virus.

“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,” Coulter said, noting that the Health Department ordered the mandate, not him.

On the first day of class Aug, 30, WBSD students and staff did a good job coming to school prepared to abide by all of the district’s COVID-19 mitigation guidelines, developed by district administrators and the Board of Education with consultation from local and state health officials.

Those guidelines include physical distancing indoors, pre-approval for outside visitors and contractors, and regular screenings at home.

“Yesterday was an amazing first day, and we are thrilled to once again see our students in our classrooms for full-day, in-person instruction. We look forward to offering full days of in-person instruction five days per week this school year,” Daniel Durkin, the public relations and marketing coordinator for the district, said in an email to the Beacon. “Our safety mitigation guidelines are a critical component in supporting our in-person instructional goals and preserving the continuity of learning for all of our students. We appreciate the support and understanding of our stakeholders as we continue to do what’s best for kids and for keeping our students, staff and families safe.”

The WLCS district did not develop its own mask mandate as part of its virus management strategy, but it did cite the county’s order in communications to parents.

WLCS also offers an online option for families uncomfortable with returning to in-person instruction, via the Virtual Learning Consortium with Oakland Schools.

WBSD has brought back its completely virtual option, Lakers Online, again for the 2021-22 year. Durkin said the online option was hugely popular with district families last year, but less so this fall.

“Lakers Online was our second largest ‘building’ last year when it came to enrollment,” Durkin said, noting that about 1,400 were enrolled across all levels last year. “This year is smaller by comparison. Enrollment is around 311: 122 elementary, 92 middle school and 97 high school.”

Staff writer Jonathan Shead contributed to this report.