TRAVERSE CITY — The director of the Grand Traverse County Health Department said the decision to keep middle- and high-schoolers out of school this week generated threats of violence.
Wendy Hirschenberger said she and her staff received threats through calls and emails.
“Throughout the entire pandemic our staff has been yelled at, sworn at, screamed at and threatened — more than anybody should in their job,” Hirschenberger said. “We are actively being threatened right now.”
The threats were reported to law enforcement officials, she told the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday.
Commissioner Betsy Coffia said the board should not take the threats lightly or “gloss over” them.
“I would like to remind the public that making threats is illegal,” Coffia said. “It’s fine to express frustration ... but it is never OK to threaten violence against any person and certainly against our health department.”
Commissioner Brad Jewett said he also received phone calls from angry parents about deciding to close schools Monday just hours before students were to return to class.
Hirschenberger said the decision to close was made by school superintendents, who asked for input from the health department and medical personnel. It was not a health department order or mandate, she said.
“It was strongly supported by everyone that we proceed with virtual for middle school and high school for the rest of this week,” Hirschenberger said.
The significant increase in school-age cases influenced the decision, said Hirschenberger, who reported earlier this week that there were 43 new cases in school-age children in the county in the last week, with another 14 cases added Wednesday morning.
In all, there were were 54 new cases reported by early Wednesday, a number that was sure to go much higher as the day wore on, Hirschenberger said. If the case numbers had gone down over spring break, it would have been a different conversation, she said.
Districts have their own response plans and can choose to follow health department recommendations or not, though they do have to follow state law, she said.
“This was a decision made by the schools,” said county Administrator Nate Alger. “The health department was a resource for the schools.”
Jewett said he heard from a lot of angry parents who were not happy, especially when elementary students were not kept home. Jewett believes the state should open up completely as the virus is “out there” and will never be contained.
“There is really not much logic behind these decisions and we’ve successfully ticked off a lot of parents,” Jewett said. “Parents need more than 15 hours to figure out what is going on with their kids the next day. I had several phone calls Monday night of ticked off parents.”
The board met at the government center, with the meeting livestreamed on GovernmentTV channel 191. It is the first in-person meeting held in several months, and technical difficulties were had as the county tried to blend the ability for the public to participate remotely with the standard format. Two callers were unable to comment during the public comment period.
Two commissioners, Bryce Hundley and Coffia, participated remotely.