COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers Community Schools Superintendent Ron Moag discusses the school district’s back-to-school plan during Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

Three Rivers schools will not require masks

Board of Education appreciative of public comment on personal choice, not mandating masks

THREE RIVERS — There will be no mask requirement in Three Rivers Community Schools.

In a back to school plan released last week for the 2021-22 academic year, the district advised parents that facial coverings would not be required for the school year, adding that the Centers for Disease Control strongly recommends masks if unvaccinated, and that masks may be worn if an individual chooses to do so. Masks, per Transportation Security Administration mandate, will still be required by both students and staff on school buses and in school-owned vans.

Additionally, the district will not require the COVID-19 vaccine in its required vaccination list, which includes vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, meningitis, chicken pox, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. No separation of students who are vaccinated or unvaccinated from others will be done nor will students be in cohorts for the school year.

Contact tracing is still a requirement for the district, with schools required to report positive or probable COVID-19 cases to the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency within 24 hours. Students who test positive for COVID-19 will quarantine per health department quarantine guidelines. Student athletes will not be tested for COVID-19.

The district will offer face-to-face learning for all grades for the school year, with sixth through 12th grades offering a virtual option as well.

The back-to-school plan was briefly discussed during Monday’s TRCS Board of Education meeting. Prior to board comment, more than a dozen parents and community members largely lauded the district for the plan during the hour-long public comment section, railed against mask mandates, and thanked the board and the district for allowing “personal choice” with regards to masks, with a few urging the district to not require them even if a mandate is theoretically put in place by the health department. Only one or two people that spoke supported requiring masks in schools.

Superintendent Ron Moag spoke about the plan, saying masking up in schools is a “personal choice” and said he is not anticipating any mandates for masking coming from the government or health department. He thanked those in attendance for voicing their thoughts.

“You’ve spoken loud and clear, and I appreciate it. I even gave myself a note, ‘no mandates even if brought down,’” Moag said. “So, we’ll have that discussion, take this into consideration to plan ahead. Every one of you is spot-on, we know more today than we did March 20. I don’t want to see anybody lose their life, I really don’t. I think there’s things in place people can take advantage of, and we’ll continue accessing and making accessible and working with the health department to have vaccine clinics.”

Trustee Ben Karle said while he may disagree with the board and district’s policy decision – he said he supports a mask mandate for K-5 students due to concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19 – he said he appreciates the citizen feedback on both sides and supports the board’s decision.

“Being on the board means I may disagree with that policy, but it means I walk out the door and I support the board. That’s part of what I learned about being on a team,” Karle said. “We have to set policy based on what we hear from the community, based on the research that we do, based on our professional organizations we belong to. Our board of seven is represented to hear different viewpoints and represent different viewpoints in the community. Whether you share my particular viewpoint or share the other viewpoints we heard from, as a community we all want the same thing, just to keep the community safe.”

Trustee Melissa Bliss said it was “important” for the board to listen to residents on the issue.

“We do hear what you said. Personally, there were a lot of words that stuck with me: choices, public school, risk versus liability, agency experts, respectful communication, dialogue, and engagement,” Bliss said. “I feel like I’m at the table to have continued conversations with the public so that we can make well-informed decisions. That’s our responsibility, to hear what’s being said, to take the agency experts’ opinion and data, and if the data isn’t accurate, to address that.”

Trustee Kevin Hamilton said he was “right there” with those in attendance in regards to having a choice with masks, referencing his daughter being mandated to be vaccinated or else having to “jump through hoops” at Michigan State University for her senior year, something he was “not okay with.”

“I hear you when you talk about choice, because of my situation,” Hamilton said. He then asked Moag if the district has had conversations with their law firm about if the district defies a mask mandate from the health department, which Moag said they haven’t, but noted that lawyers usually look at limiting liability in those cases.

“They’re always going to err on the side of caution,” Moag said. “They’re always going to look at how to limit your liability, so if it’s a requirement or mandate, they’re going to tell you you’re going to need to follow it.”

Board Secretary Anne Riopel, who presided over Monday’s meeting in the absence of President Erin Nowak and Vice President Linda Baker, said she was in favor of wearing a mask if not vaccinated, but said she also believes in choice and being educated.

“I still don’t know where the Delta variant will take us, and I’m one of those people that are more cautious,” Riopel said. “I totally appreciate that, and I also appreciate that all parents are the ones that know what’s best for their kids. I’m a firm believer in that. I just want us as a board to continue to give as much information to the community that we can so that you’re able to make the best decision that you can make based on the info you have, and we’ll do everything we can in our power to make the schools safe.”

Riopel said if a mandate does get handed down for masks, which she doesn’t expect, the district would hold a town hall meeting to have dialogue about the issue before a decision is made.

In other business…

  • The board approved the hire of Nicole Graham as a language arts teacher at Three Rivers High School.
  • The board heard a presentation from TRCS Facilities Director Brian Leonard and Tom Smith from Skillman Corporation on the progress of bond construction in the district prior to the beginning of the school year. More on that presentation will be in an upcoming edition of the Commercial-News.
  • The board approved the regular consent agenda, with the omission of bond invoices totaling almost $960,000. Riopel said she wasn’t comfortable approving it due to unspecified questions she had, asking the board’s finance committee take another look at it. Moag said there would be a finance committee meeting this week, with a possible special meeting next week to officially vote on the bond invoices.

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

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