Centreville schools to encourage parental choice with masks: 'We'll trust our parents'

CENTREVILLE — In what is expected to be a trend in many, if not all, school districts in St. Joseph County for the 2021-22 school year, Centreville Public Schools Superintendent Stephanie Lemmer said the district will strongly recommend masks for students in classrooms this upcoming school year, but not mandate them, leaving the choice up to parents.

The announcement was made during discussion of the district’s COVID-19-related plans at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. Lemmer said the district’s priority this year is face-to-face instruction, and stressed its importance for students.

“If there’s anything I learned over the course of the last two years, it’s been the importance of that component and the socialization and interactions our kids get by coming to school with their peers and being in their classrooms with a highly-qualified teacher,” Lemmer said.

She said she understands the “anxiety” many parents feel when it comes to recommendations versus mandates, and said the overall stance the district is taking is that there are certain things the district should follow, the biggest being if there is a mandate or emergency order at the local, state or federal level, they have to follow it.

However, one of the things that is not explicitly mandated is masks in classrooms, which the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services only strongly recommends for students. Lemmer said the district will “trust our parents” when it comes to masks.

“We know we’re in partnership with our parents, and our parents understand we’re going to communicate what the recommendations from our local and state health department are, and we’ll trust our parents to make the decision that’s right for their family to protect their children,” Lemmer said. “Currently, those recommendations are that children who are attending school K-12 should wear a mask. That’s the recommendation, it’s strongly recommended, and we’ll make sure to give that information to our parents to make the decision that best suits their child.”

As far as mandates go, Lemmer said there is a federal mandate since last October that requires universal masking on public transportation, which include K-12 school buses. To that, the board approved a letter by a 6-1 vote to send to United States Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, as well as U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, claiming school buses are not public transportation and asking them to bring “urgent attention” of the purported issue to the CDC in the hopes buses would be removed from that classification so that masks won’t be mandated on school buses. Board Secretary Margaret Miller dissented in the vote. Lemmer said other school districts in the county are planning on sending similar letters.

Other mandates the school district has to follow is continuing to report the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the school and the number of students quarantined on their website. However, a difference this year is they will be reported based on the numbers provided to the district by BHSJ. The district will also still be required to handle contact tracing in the district.

Lemmer said if a staff member or employee who becomes symptomatic and “feels like their symptoms are unexplained,” they would be protected to take leave from work using their sick days. In the event a staff member is out due to COVID-related symptoms, they would be required to get a COVID test within 72 hours. If the test comes back negative, they’re required to come back to work, and if positive, BHSJ will handle quarantine.

“We have an abundance of testing supplies, so we can offer that as something for our employees, or if they want to go somewhere else, they’re more than welcome to,” Lemmer said.

As far as vaccination goes, Lemmer said the district will not require the COVID-19 vaccination to attend school, but said the vaccine is “strongly recommended” as well.

Board of Education President Jeff Troyer said personally, if the state mandates either masks or vaccination for schools, he’d be “okay with a mandate,” especially if it’s tied to school funding. However, if they have a choice, he said he’d prefer parental and personal choice with those issues.

“I get it, they’re all going to school together. I don’t know how many positive cases the high school and elementaries had in the last year, but this [Delta] variant – the impact on kids is very minute,” Troyer said. “I get it, they can get it and transmit it, but they’ve shut down our school before for other diseases, like if it gets bad enough let’s close it down for a couple days. Personally, I’d much rather kids have their choice and give it to the parents. If the kids want to wear masks, let them wear masks. If that makes them feel safe, I’m all about that.”

On the opposite spectrum, Trustee TJ Reed said even if there was a mandate, he’d support parent choice.

“Just because the state’s saying you have to, I don’t think it negates the parent’s choice or their ability. I don’t think somebody in Lansing has that ability,” Reed said. “The only thing that would sway me would be if they say, ‘You’re going to lose money and you can’t afford to operate the school in light of a mandate.’ I still don’t think mandate versus recommendation changes my opinion on parental choice, but I do understand we have bills to pay and a school to operate, and that’s the only way I’d concede on the masks if they say, black and white, mandate it or you don’t get money.”

Parents who attended the meeting, both in-person and virtually, praised the board for their choice to have parents choose.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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