Laatsch: Masks No Longer Required in Saline Schools When County Health Order Expires

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Saline Area Schools will not require students and staff to wear masks when the Washtenaw County Health Department's COVID-19 health order expires Feb. 28. The district will mirror the health department's guidance and "highly recommend" the wearing of masks indoors.

Superintendent Steve Laatsch announced the decision to applause during the Board of Education held Tuesday evening at Saline Middle School.  He noted that the Washtenaw County Health Department and Michigan Department of Health and Human Resources have both "backed off" on their guidance concerning masks in schools due to changing conditions in the pandemic.

"So, Saline Area Schools will follow the Washtenaw County Health Department guidance,  and effective Feb. 28 masks will be highly recommended for all students, staff and community members in indoor settings within our schools," Laatsch said.

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Laatsch pointed to rapidly dropping transmission rates, high vaccination rates in Washtenaw County and low transmission rates in Saline schools. He said, however, that things could change in specific buildings or if there's a wave. He also said since the district is following the health department's guidance - so if the health department orders a mask mandate, the district would follow.

Masks will remain a requirement on school buses due to federal rules. Staff will mask in classrooms with students under the age of five because those children are not yet approved for vaccination.

The district released the following information to the public following the meeting:

  • Masks are highly recommended, but optional, and a personal choice for all staff, students, guests, and visitors
  • The option holds true within all district buildings and facilities (not on school buses)
  • No one has the right to require, influence, encourage, pressure, harass, or bully anyone to wear -or- not wear a mask. SAS will be educating students and staff of how to respectfully move to a phase where many people will be wearing masks and many people will not be wearing masks.
  • Medically fragile student and staff situations will be differentiated (individualized) in order to best support the care and educational environment of the students and/or staff.
  • Students under the age of 5, such as our ECSE students, who have not had the chance to be vaccinated, will have additional support in place (such as staff masking).

Only two weeks ago, it seemed like students would spend the rest of the year in masks. Laatsch reported the county health department did not plan to eliminate its mandate until transmission fell to "moderate" rates for 14 straight days. Since testing ramped up, the district has rarely seen "moderate" transmission for two consecutive weeks in the school year. At that point, Laatsch said during the first February board meeting, the district would revert to its own masking plan - which contained many of the same metrics as the county plan. But on Feb. 16, the WCHD's position suddenly shifted and it announced its last remaining COVID-19 health orders would be lifted Feb. 28.

As has been the practice throughout the pandemic, dating back to former Superintendent Scot Graden's "Return to Learn" plans, the Board of Education did not vote on their superintendent's plan.  To no one's surprise, Laatsch's plan on the polarizing issue had varying levels of support.

Board President Jennifer Steben said the pandemic has been challenging for staff, the district's families and students. She said she appreciated the care and collaboration that went into Laatsch's plan.

"You have my full support in this plan," Steben said.

The newest Trustee, David Hayward, said Laatsch and the district were put in an impossible position when the county rescinded its health order. He said he thought the district's original metrics-based plan was ahead of the curve.

Trustee Kandace Jones asked Laatsch about the staff's feedback to the plan and how the district planned to support staff.

Laatsch said the district received mixed feedback from staff.

"I don't know if its exactly down the middle, but there is a divide on opinions and perspectives on this. There's no question about it," Laatsch said.

Laatsch said Saline Middle School Principal Laura Washington has begun meeting with other administrators to develop an educational component that outlines what staff and students should expect Feb. 28.

Trustee Jenny Miller said that she was averse to risk-taking. She said she felt the plan the district offered last fall "felt safe to me" and offered metrics that she could understand. But, Miller said, things continue to change in the pandemic, and students and staff must learn to adjust. Miller teaches in the Ann Arbor district.

"I saw this happen when teachers and students started to return to buildings, I was in the first wave in my building to return and I was nervous. And then once we got in there, it felt okay.  But in every wave that came after that, I saw that fear in my colleagues' eyes. As someone who had that feeling I did my best to assure them and to support them and to do what I could do to make them feel comfortable," Miller said.

Miller asked if the district could do more to help students concerned about issues like spacing as the masks come off. She also asked what's going to be done to help medically vulnerable students stay safe.

Laatsch said there are going to be situations where district staff can work with medically fragile students to provide more spacing. Classrooms with medically fragile students will have discuss their situations. Laatsch said when there's an illness in one of these classrooms, the district might resurrect the practice of contact tracing to help make sure the medically fragile student is safe.

Laatsch said he believed students and staff in a class with a medically fragile student would act to protect the student.

"I think this is where there is that empathy element where you're talking to your peers and talking through the situation and providing extra support," Laatsch said. "I do think that students certainly understand that at any age and will help support the health and safety of any individual student within the classroom."

Trustee Brad Gerbe said he judged policies on several factors, including education outcomes, legal compliance, financial judgment and expertise. Assessing Laatsch's plan against those factors, Gerbe said he was comfortable. On the issue of protecting medically fragile students, Gerbe cited the professionalism of the district's staff, noting that teachers have for years offered personalized learning plans.

Gerbe said personally thought lifting the mask mandate was coming too soon, but that he trusted in the expertise of the health experts from WCHD who rescinded the health order.

"I'm inclined to believe in the experts," Gerbe said. "They're saying  we can do this and so that also makes me support this plan."

Trustee Michael McVey said he trusted district administrators who've been cautious and supportive of all the kids.

"We're on the right path. I think so far. And I know that we'll pivot and adjust and tweak as we go forward to address the needs of those most vulnerable students that we have," McVey said.

Trustee Susan Estep said she couldn't support the plan. She said she supported the metrics-based plan. 

"If we have children who have conditions or who die, I will not be responsible and that under me.  I do not support this at all," Estep said.

She said the district should wait until the WCHD releases more guidance Feb. 28.

Laatsch's announcement came after nearly an hour of public comment. Most of the people who spoke during public comment spoke in favor of choice - though several were from other communities. One woman, representing a group called Let Them Play, told the district they would file a lawsuit immediately if the district upheld mask mandates. Several residents spoke of learning loss and a rise in mental health issues among children. 

Lauren Gold read a lead on behalf of local doctors and pediatricians urging the board to uphold the plan it approved in August.

"After reviewing the available data and information put forth by the CDC, we agree unanimously that is too soon. To completely lift masking requirements for students," Gold said.

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Extremely disappointed in the superintendent for bending to pressure from a loud minority. It’s also ridiculous that people that don’t have children in our schools or even live in Saline are allowed to speak at the board meetings.Go yell at your own school boards.

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