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As school districts enter into their third school year impacted by the pandemic, teachers and education leaders tell the Advance they’re feeling less supported by the state to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) updated its guidance for the new school year, which includes a “strong recommendation” for universal mask mandates.
On Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statement “applauding” school districts “implementing smart mask policies.” But the state has not set statewide guidance for schools, despite pleas from many teachers and administrators as the more contagious Delta variant spreads and kids under 12 aren’t eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I don’t know that schools are necessarily feeling like they have the full support of the state this year like they did last year,” said K-12 Alliance of Michigan Executive Director Robert McCann.
Last year, the state implemented a layered plan based on the surrounding community’s COVID-19 spread — the greater the rate of COVID-19, the tighter the restrictions for schools.
Because of that, a number of schools in high transmission regions started last school year completely remotely, per guidance from Whitmer. For the districts that did offer in-person instruction, mask mandates and social distancing were enforced by the state.
According to a Monday ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, DHHS has the authority to mandate masks, which was challenged in the Resurrection School v. Hertel et al case.
In a statement Tuesday, Nessel defended the state’s mask mandate last school year, and added that mask mandates are “a measure by which we can better protect public health.”
DHHS reported Wednesday that a total of 937,720 Michiganders have tested positive and 20,161 have died from the virus, and that number is climbing by the thousands each day.
More than 150,000 of the state’s total cases are Michiganders under 20 years old, and 38,105 of those are children under age 10.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy health director, has urged Whitmer and DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel to implement a statewide mask mandate for schools as COVID-19 cases surge.
Several local health departments have already moved forward to require masks in schools. The Wayne County Public Health Department became the latest on Friday to mandate local school districts and daycare providers require all students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear a face mask while in school and during school-sponsored indoor events, regardless of vaccine status.
And according to the state, 179 traditional school districts — which serve about 54% of all public school students in Michigan — have some type of mask policy in place. That includes Michigan’s largest school district, Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD), and Grand Rapids Public Schools.
“That number has increased substantially over the last few weeks, and we expect to see that trend continue as the first day of school approaches,” Whitmer said in a statement Friday. “Districts and local public health leaders should keep working together to implement mask guidelines and create buy-in at the community level.”
A state Senate GOP spokesperson did not respond to comment on the governor’s approach to mask mandates this school year. Neither did House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Chair Mary Whiteford (R-Casco Twp.).
DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said the department “applauds [school districts’] efforts and encourages all Michigan districts to follow their lead.”
Sutfin added that the DHHS is working with school administrators and local health departments to advise on masking and prevention strategies.
But McCann said health decisions should be left up to health experts, not school administrators.
“Without that clear direction from health departments, that’s a hard question for a superintendent who is, frankly, not a health expert to be able to answer,” McCann said. “[Superintendents] are doing what they can and the best way they know how, but ultimately we continue to request and rely on directives from health experts.”
“We need health officials to … provide us with a clear response plan should the COVID-19 Delta variant impact our school buildings,” said Superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated Schools Ken Gutman. “Even more importantly, [health officials should] provide clear decision making, not vague recommendations, on how we can best prevent that from happening.”
Pressure on teachers, districts
Blake Mazurek, a history teacher at Grandville Middle School in West Michigan and the Grandville Education Association president, said that the lack of state level guidance has put teachers in the crosshairs of some angry residents.
“If it was done at a state level … it would take away that gray area on the local side when it comes to public health that has opened the door for … school board meetings being overrun with folks from predominantly the anti-mask, anti-vaccination side,” Mazurek said.
Anti-mask activists have pushed back against districts across the state, crowding into school board meetings and protesting outside schools demanding that students be allowed to be in-person and unmasked this school year.
Last week, a man flashed a Nazi salute and chanted “Heil Hitler” during a Birmingham Board of Education meeting over a mask mandate for students and parents protested outside of Forest Hills Central High School after the district required unvaccinated staff and students to wear masks.
On Monday, another man on the other side of the state at an Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting warned that there are “a lot of good guys out there ready to do bad things soon” because of mask mandates.
Mazurek said there is an unnecessary divide between teachers and parents because of the politicization of the pandemic.
“At some of the board meetings I’ve attended, I’ve heard very, very strong name calling against us as a profession, as individuals, and that has given us an extra level of tension for teachers and support staff,” Mazurek said. “We are trying to make decisions as professionals and as districts to create the safest, healthiest atmosphere in our schools, and I feel like that message gets lost right now.”
But he is working on making sure that the polarity of COVID-19 doesn’t seep into the classroom environment.
“Our classrooms are a place where kids should be able to feel safe, know that they can be who they are and know that they can believe what they want to believe,” Mazurek said. “I think that as teachers, we are always working towards that goal. And it is an exceptionally challenging year to do so.”
More educators retiring
The pressure of teaching during a politicized pandemic has taken a toll on educators in the classroom, and that shows in the number of educators who are leaving the workforce.
Michigan’s educator retirement rate jumped 44% this last year, according to a survey done by Launch Michigan, a statewide K–12 partnership consisting of education, business, philanthropic and civic leaders.
A lack of support from policy makers and legislators is a top issue affecting educators’ career satisfaction.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue, with 32% of educators saying that the pandemic has had an impact on their level of job satisfaction.
Another 66% of educators say that they feel like there is a lack of respect for their profession.
“Unfortunately the state hasn’t prioritized education enough to make teaching a value profession in the state,” McCann said.
Although many are frustrated with the state’s current inaction around COVID-19 mandates, education leaders do credit Whitmer for the support through one-time K-12 funding.
The state made a historic investment of more than $4 billion into K-12 districts for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, fully funded by federal dollars.
A portion of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding will go toward hiring on support staff in districts, which education leaders say is necessary after a tumultuous few years for students.
Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Paula Herbart said Michigan districts have needed to increase the number of social workers, school counselors and nurses for years, and “now we have the funds to do it. And we’re going to need even more because of the impact of COVID on our students’ social and emotional well-being.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are the people to fill those positions, as the state faces an already leaky teacher pipeline that has been worsened during the pandemic.
“I’ve certainly heard the frustration from superintendents this year that it’s hard to find certain staff at this point, despite the fact that they have some additional resources,” McCann said. “It’s not like a light switch. You can’t just flip a switch on … because you have to find the right people to be able to offer that class or offer that assistance.”
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