Why Did the School Board Hold a Vote on a Policy That Was Already in Place?

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Dylan Lees for ELi

Trustees Elizabeth Lyons and Monica Fink at the Aug. 9, 2021 meeting of the ELPS School Board.

Although new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend that East Lansing Public Schools require masking, the district’s Board of Education voted on Monday, Mar. 1, to approve a resolution to continue masking at least through mid-April.

The vote comes nearly two weeks after Superintendent Dori Leyko announced the same policy in an email to families and students.

So why did the four trustees present at Monday’s meeting hold a vote on this issue?

The vote seems to have come about after a parent noticed that the district’s official masking policy was in the recently approved policy handbook. The language in the handbook outlined the mask mandate but also included a caveat about the end date.

“This Policy will remain in effect until the Order has been rescinded by the Ingham County Health Department,” stated the policy. The Ingham County Health Department announced on Feb. 10 that its masking mandate would end on Feb. 19.

When asked by ELi for comment last week about the issue, Leyko said that the School Board had usually not voted on specific decisions related to Covid safety and mitigation throughout the pandemic. The only exception had been during the 2020-2021 school year, when the state mandated the school boards hold monthly votes to certify their education plans. The ELPS School Board complied with that policy.

But, since the mask policy was in the handbook and stated a specific end date, the Board held a vote on a resolution to extend the mask mandate through at least mid-April.

The resolution also acknowledges that the district has a letter of agreement with the East Lansing Education Association – the union that represents teachers in the district. The letter calls for masking in schools and is reviewed every six weeks until it expires in June 2022. Ending a mask mandate could violate that agreement.

Even though the CDC guidelines do not currently recommend masking at schools, the Board articulated other reasons for extending the mandate.

The CDC’s most recent guidelines – released Feb. 24, over a week after Leyko first announced the ELPS mask mandate extension – offer communities who are considered at low risk the opportunity to forego masking up indoors. These guidelines, instead of requiring masking based on community case counts, now rely on a county’s previous week’s measure of Covid-related hospital admissions, the availability of hospital beds, and Covid cases per 100,000 people. 

This new direction from the CDC includes schools – meaning it is now only recommended to implement universal masking at schools in counties at high risk.

Before the vote passed, President of the Board Kate Powers said, “I have the good fortune to represent everyone, those I agree and disagree with, so at this point in time I support this resolution. I look forward to conditions remaining in a positive light a few weeks after spring break so we can make a good decision [in mid-April].” 

Dylan Lees for ELi

President Kate Powers at the Feb. 14, 2022, School Board meeting.

Powers went on to mention that, “currently our county is at a medium risk level, but the county directly north is at high risk level.”

If ELPS were to move away from universal masking, at least a handful of students would have to remain masked as the district continues to monitor close contacts of confirmed cases. 

“Right now with masks, a close contact is someone [who has come] within three feet,” said Leyko. “If there is no mask mandate, that distance grows to six feet, [increasing the number] of students [who] would be identified as close contacts. And, if they are unvaccinated, they would have to be masked if identified as a close contact… Monitoring and enforcing this would be challenging.”

Removing masks could provide additional challenges, including leaving some kids exposed to Covid-19 stuck at home as the Test-To-Stay program is only an option for districts with universal mask mandates. 

“It’s one thing to make a decision for my child, but I have responsibility for all the kids in all these buildings… My priority is to have kids in school everyday,” said Trustee Terah Chambers.

Dylan Lees for ELi

Trustee Terah Chambers at the Feb. 14, 2022, School Board meeting.

Each trustee mentioned their appreciation for the slew of emails they received from the community in support of and in opposition to this resolution. 

“There is always someone who will not be happy. Decisions have been made carefully, thoughtfully, and slowly. Let’s not get fatigued by the pandemic and throw caution to the wind. I stand on reassessing after spring break,” said Trustee Monica Fink. 

Dylan Lees for ELi

Secretary Monica Fink at the Feb. 14, 2022, School Board meeting.

Trustee Elizabeth Lyons added that, “since we’ve had masks, we have not had to go hybrid or online all year… So masks work… We are so close to allowing families to go on vacation; [if] we take masks away now, we may have lots [of people] getting sick and not going on vacation.”

Dylan Lees for ELi

Trustee Elizabeth Lyons at the Feb. 14, 2022, School Board meeting.

The trustees present voted unanimously for the resolution, including an amendment for the resolution to contain masking requirements for public school transportation. Vice President Chris Martin, Treasurer Kath Edsall, and Trustee Debbie Walton were not present.

The Board also unanimously approved a resolution that will allow flexibility to daily attendance requirements.

When a Michigan school’s daily attendance falls below 75%, the district is at risk of funding losses.

As students returned from winter break in January, the Omicron variant threatened in-person learning as students stayed home from school because they were either sick with or afraid of contracting the virus. 

Although this attendance requirement only affected ELPS to the tune of an approximate $2,000 of financial loss for the school year thus far, it has manifested more substantial loss for other districts across Michigan.

Powers mentioned that “this doesn’t just affect us, it affects one-third of Michigan schools. So, supporting this benefits us, but also [it benefits] more students and schools across the state.”

Emily Joan Elliott contributed to reporting.

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