Masks or no masks. Social distancing or not. Vaccination mandates or not. People in Michigan are divided over what kind of pandemic safety protocols schools should employ for the quickly approaching new school year.
Chalkbeat Detroit asked readers to share their thoughts about what safety measures are essential for the 2021-22 school year. More than four dozen parents, teachers, and community members responded.
We heard from readers who believe masks should be required of all, and those who say no one should have to wear a mask. We heard from readers who spoke of the costs borne by their children who struggled through virtual learning. We also heard from readers who believe some of the safety protocols, such as the use of hand sanitizers, social distancing, and COVID testing programs, should also be part of school plans.
The responses come as school administrators across Michigan weigh what to do to keep everyone safe, but also appease those who want few safety measures. Bob McCann, executive director of the school advocacy group K-12 Alliance of Michigan, said the debate over reopening, which often takes on political tones, has been challenging for school administrators.
“We already have parents telling superintendents that if you make my student wear a mask, I’m not going to send them back. How do we deal with that? Superintendents are put absolutely between a rock and a hard place,” McCann said.
Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control, concerned by surging cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus, issued guidance urging mask mandates for students and staff inside schools, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. On Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidance to schools urging they adopt the CDC guidelines.
Among those who responded to Chalkbeat’s reader callout was Dominique Jacques, a Detroit parent with a child attending Cass Technical High School. She backs the CDC recommendations.
“I believe everyone should wear a mask, all adults, all students, to protect those who are not vaccinated,” Jacques said. “The children who are unvaccinated deserve for us to take as many safety precautions as possible.”
Here is a breakdown of what readers had to say about what safety protocols are needed, what safety protocols can be eliminated, virtual learning, and wearing masks.
‘Masks on everyone’
A large majority of the people who responded to a question about what safety measures should be in place said they want universal masking mandates for all students and staff. Others want masks to be worn, but only by those who are unvaccinated.
One parent said she chose a virtual option for her children in Livonia Public Schools. But, she said, if students are required to be in person, “I want masks on everyone.”
In addition to masks, readers overwhelmingly cited social distancing, and vaccination mandates as other safety protocols schools should employ during the school year.
Other safety measures cited include COVID testing, COVID symptom screening, improving air ventilation, deep cleaning of schools, and lower class sizes.
About a handful of people said they don’t want to see any safety protocols in schools.
“Wash your hands. Stay home if you are feeling sick. Same procedure we’ve practiced for years,” said one from Grand Rapids.
“It’s time to go back to normal,” said a parent from Sterling Heights.
‘COVID … still too real’
Most of the readers said they wouldn’t get rid of any of the safety measures schools had in place during the last school year.
“I feel COVID is still too real,” said an educator from Ypsilanti.
These are the things some said they would be OK with eliminating: contact tracing, frequent disinfection of surfaces by teachers, two-week quarantines for those exposed to the virus, mask mandates, COVID testing, and temperature checks.
One person said they would get rid of all safety measures.
“They aren’t effective and do more harm than good.”
‘She spent last year unhappy’
Chalkbeat asked readers how pandemic learning affected their children, and what they hope schools will do differently this year. Many Michigan students spent much or all of the last school year learning virtually.
One Wixom parent said her daughter was already behind before the pandemic and that “the pandemic put her even more behind by doing virtual schooling.”
Another parent said her child lost a lot of learning time and was only in person for 24 days last school year. And one said her daughter suffered from anxiety.
“She spent last year unhappy due to masking and having to social distance from friends.”
Others said their children thrived in virtual learning and wanted to ensure that option is still available.
Jacques, in an interview, said her son, a junior, is among those who did well academically while learning online. She is reticent about her son returning to Cass Tech in person because she worries about whether everyone will follow the safety rules. But she let him make the decision for himself, and he opted to be in person. His reasoning — the need for social support — was cited by others who shared feedback.
“People forget how often we can learn and grow just by having people around us,” Dominic Jacques, 16, said. He said he didn’t grow as much as he would have if he had been in an in-person setting.
“If I can’t receive feedback or speak and interact with the people around me, I get used to only hearing my own thoughts and opinions. You really grow from hearing what other people have to say.”