Traverse City Area Public Schools buses wait outside Central Grade School for student dismissal on Monday afternoon.

TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools trustees voted to reinstate the district’s universal mask mandate and to keep secondary students in virtual learning through the end of the week.

During a Monday meeting that stretched more than three hours, the board voted unanimously to reinstate its mask mandate on Wednesday after a lengthy discussion about masking, staffing shortages and virtual learning. The board also voted unanimously to keep the district’s secondary students in remote learning through Jan. 18.

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At board President Scott Newman-Bale’s suggestion, trustees decided to reinstate their previous universal masking mandate policy until the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department drops its mask mandate for schools. By leaning their mandate on the BLDHD’s requirements, Newman-Bale said the board could avoid talking about health policy, a subject multiple trustees said they prefer to leave to public health authorities.

Newman-Bale said that, because of a void created by the Grand Traverse County Health Department’s silence on masking, BLDHD is the closest health department, and it houses some TCAPS students within its jurisdiction.

Trustees also directed Superintendent John VanWagoner to shift secondary and elementary students to remote instruction if staffing shortages preclude them from remaining in person in the coming weeks.

Last week, teacher absences pushed the school district to cancel classes Wednesday at Traverse City West Middle School and on Friday for the entire school district. The shortages also pushed the district’s secondary students online for Monday and Tuesday in order to allow quarantining teachers or teachers attending to sick, homebound family members to teach virtually.

The board’s vote on remote instruction did not involve elementary students, but VanWagoner said the staffing shortages could also push those classes remote.

Several public commenters levied opinions during the meeting regarding masking and the teacher shortage.

Those against the mask mandate pleaded with the board to not reinstate it, advocating for the board to leave such decisions to parents.

“This past week was the first time she’s ever gone to school with a smile on her face since she had to wear masks, because it’s not just a mask to these kids,” said TCAPS parent Travis Dunkin of his daughter. “We’re teaching our children to be afraid of each other. We’re teaching them to fear the air we breathe, to fear the fact that they can make their grandparents sick. That’s no way for a child to learn in school.”

Others spoke in favor of the mask mandate and urged the board to reinstate it, voicing concerns about the omicron variant and whether students will be able to remain in in-person learning.

“I hope that you’re able to reinstate the universal masking policy because I think that’s the only way you’re going to be able to stay in person,” said Bruce Moore. “Even then, I’m not sure that you’ll be able to stay in person universally, but if you can manage to keep kids in classrooms for one additional day before you have to close and go virtual, I think that’s a victory.”

Many also made comments about the staff shortages of the past week, questioning the legitimacy of the absences. Some referred to a message dispatched last week by the Traverse City Education Association, the teachers’ union, that warned the board about teacher absences and resignations as a result of expiring the mask mandate.

“In a 12/31 letter to members, (union) leadership has walked right up the line of advocating for a sick out encouraging members to take leaves of absence and say no when asked to cover for other teachers absences,” Chris Cole said.

A sick out is a form of protest and a union tactic to indirectly protest school district policies. The Record-Eagle has previously reported that TCEA president, Mike Livengood, said the absences from last week were not part of a protest organized by the teachers’ union.

On Monday, Livengood spoke in support of the mask mandate, and he addressed comments made about teachers in the past week.

“We have stepped up. We have been present. We have kept our students at the forefront of our decisions. We have altered our work environments to ensure quality education continues despite the global pandemic,” Livengood said. “Most recently, we have received an onslaught of negative press and false accusations on social media … and quite frankly it hurts.”

During the board’s discussion about COVID, the trustees talked about masking, virtual learning and staffing shortages.

Dr. Cindy Berck, TCAPS Executive Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations, said half of the retired teachers who work as substitutes for TCAPS decided not to return to their posts after the district sunset its mask mandate effective Jan. 1.

Trustee Flournoy Humphreys said because of the lack of substitutes willing to return without a mask mandate, the board needs to rethink how they think about the mask mandate.

“The bottom line right now is that the lack of a mask mandate in TCAPS is keeping employees from feeling safe to enter the buildings and come in and teach our students,” Humphreys said.

Trustee Sue Kelly, who has often been the lone “no” vote against universal masking in TCAPS schools during the 2021-22 school year, was supportive of the idea to reinstate a mask mandate tied to BLDHD’s masking requirements. She said she wants parents and kids to have the choice to mask, but that she wants to defer the decision to public health officials.

“We need to look outside of ourselves to health professionals to make those leadership guidance, and Grand Traverse health department has their hands tied at this point,” Kelly said. “But we have students in Benzie, we have students in Leelanau, that’s our second best choice.”

After voting to reinstate the mask mandate, the trustees turned to the staffing shortages and asked VanWagoner and Berck about the current circumstances surrounding the staff shortage. VanWagoner said with the sickness in staff, it is hard for him to tell whether the district can be in person, even with masking back in place and all substitutes back.

“We’re missing custodial staff left and right. We’re missing drivers. We’re missing administrators I mean we have a lot of people in this building. We have a lot of administrators right now that are out sick. And so you know we need a few days, honestly, to try and get healthy and make another run at it.”

Trustee Andrew Raymond said he had heard from many in the public that one day in-person is best, so he questioned whether it was better to set out to be in person on Thursday, but Newman-Bale said flipping between in-person and virtual is difficult on staff and students.

After the discussion and the votes on masking and remote instruction, some took to the second section of public comment to thank the board for their decision to reinstate the mask mandate while others criticized the board’s decision.

“I want to get back to face-to-face, and this is how we do it,” said Addie Nicolaou, a West Senior High School student. “I just want to say thank you so much for taking the steps to get us there.”

Samantha Magee, who works in the kitchen at Courtade Elementary School, said the week the mandate was dropped was the first week she looked forward to going to work since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It has been hard. I get to see these kids and a lot of them — the first graders — haven’t seen my face in two years,” Magee said. “And that’s rough.”

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