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Northeast Michigan school districts balance health, safety concerns in weighing mask mandates

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena High School Principal Romeo Bourdage, left, says his goodbyes to students at the end of the school day on Tuesday. Bourdage said, for the most part, that most of the students compiled with the mask mandate that the school district helps prevent a transition to remote learning.

ALPENA — The recent spread of COVID-19 has led three Northeast Michigan school districts to implement mask mandates and others say they are prepared to do the same, if numbers continue to climb.

Alpena Public Schools, Rogers City Area Schools, and Alcona Community Schools began to enforce their mandates on Tuesday.

The spread of COVID-19 has created staffing issues at some of the schools, which now struggle to keep the doors open. Additionally, hundreds of kids across the area are in quarantine because of close contact with others who have been infected.

On Sunday, APS reported 29 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 232 students are in quarantine because of close contact with an infected person. Thunder Bay Junior High went remote last week because of a lack of available staff and students returned to school Monday.

On several occasions, there haven’t been enough bus drivers to cover all of the routes, which has forced students to find alternate ways to get to school.

AHS Principal Romeo Bourdage stood outside his office Tuesday, wishing his students a good night, while directing them to put their masks on.

Overall, Bourdage said, he was pleased with the compliance level and the mood of the kids.

“They have been great,” he said.

Students that don’t mask-up, are subject to discipline, including suspension, but each case will be handled on an individual basis, APS Superintendent Dave Rabbideau said Monday during a board of education meeting.

Superintendents from other area districts say keeping kids healthy and in class are their main objectives. To achieve that, it may require the use of masks until infection numbers decline.

Alcona Community Schools saw a swift rise in recent infections. Superintendent Dan O’Connor said in a 24-hour span earlier this week, 13 confirmed infections were recorded that resulted in more than 100 students being forced to quarantine. He said the school district is at a breaking point with its staffing levels and if swift action wasn’t taken, and masks weren’t mandated, face-to-face learning was in jeopardy.

“To keep the kids in school and keep them out of quarantine, we had to make this move,” O’Connor said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to not go to remote learning. That is not what the community wants or what is best for the kids, so we’re doing everything we can to keep the doors open and right now, this is the best solution to do that.”

Some of the area’s smaller school districts have had few infections and haven’t had to implement mask mandates, yet.

Hillman Community Schools and Atlanta Community Schools Superintendent Carl Seiter said since the middle of August, there have been less than 10 confirmed infections between the two districts. Seiter said he is in regular contact with District Health Department No. 4 and monitors local pandemic numbers and trends. If the infections begin to spike, then action is possible, Seiter said.

“We have been very fortunate so for now I’m not going to issue any mandate other than the ones in place for on the buses,” Seiter said.

He said mandating that people wear masks while on the school buses is a policy set by the federal government and not the local school districts.

In Posen, there is no mask mandate. Superintendent Michelle Weser said so far this school year, there haven’t been any confirmed infections at the school, and currently there are no students in quarantine. She said her fingers are crossed that remains the case, but school administrators and health officials are keeping a close eye on the situation and ready to act if the dynamics of the situation change.

“We are not requiring masks, but if we begin to see cases, community spread, or outbreaks in the school, we’ll use those as determining factors on what steps we take,” Wesner said. “Right now we’re looking good.”

Rogers City Area Schools has had 20 new confirmed or probable COVID-19 infections at its elementary school since Sept.12 and implemented its mask mandate on Tuesday, data from the school district showed. That information didn’t indicate how many students or staff members are in quarantine.

In an email sent to The News by Administrative Assistant Vicki Paull on behalf of Superintendent Nick Hein, Hein said the school district recognizes that quarantine isn’t the best path forward, and he applauds the students and parents for the support.

“We have a family-oriented community that has reached out with their support of this tough decision. The community and students alike recognize that the mask requirement allows students other options instead of an immediate quarantine from the health department,” Hein said. “Quarantining has proven to have a negative effect on too many students and families over the last two years. The district continues to work closely with every parent or student who may be struggling with this new requirement, each situation is addressed on a case-by-case basis.”

Onaway Area Community School District Superintendent Rod Fullerton said there have been less than a handful of infections to staff or students so far this school year. Although he believes a mask mandate could be beneficial, until District Health Department No. 4 makes a recommendation for a mandate, or issues an order for people in schools to wear masks, students have the option of whether or not to wear one.

He said he understands implementing a mandate right now would lead to backlash from parents, but he added if the health department said a mandate was needed, one would be implemented.

“I think we are doing better than many districts, knock on wood,” Fullerton said. “I think the guidance may show a mask mandate is necessary, but the political climate is so hot right now that all it would do is add fuel to the fire at board meetings. We are doing the best we can.”

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