H-PT parents complain about tighter mask requirements

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton-Portage Township Schools parents Andrew Moyle and Tom Rajala were among those who addressed the board Monday asking for lighter mask requirements for students and for teachers to apply a consistent standard.

HOUGHTON — Several parents came to Houghton-Portage Township Schools’ board meeting Monday to ask the district to return to more lenient face-covering requirements.

Tom Rajala, who has three children in the school district, said his eighth- and 10th-graders are also now taking virtual learning courses after being told their face coverings no longer met the middle and high school specifications. Those were changed after the first week to specify masks requiring a non-porous material that significantly reduces the amount of aerosol.

Rajala also decided to homeschool his fifth-grader after the first week due to his fifth-grader’s dislike of wearing a mask and his fear of getting in trouble for not wearing it properly.

Upper Peninsula districts are in Phase 5 of the state’s Safe Start plan. In that stage, it is strongly recommended that, except for during meals, staff should always wear masks and students should wear them in hallways and common areas. They are also recommended in classrooms for sixth- through 12th-grade students. The guidance states that facial coverings should be homemade or disposable level-one basic grade surgical masks.

The district policy approved by the board requires students in third through 12th grades to wear face coverings at all times except when eating or participating in socially distanced activities.

The revised policy sets the definition for an acceptable face covering: “any cloth which includes multiple layers of fabric and allows for breathing without restriction.”

The face covering must also cover the nose and mouth to maintain effectiveness, the policy states. It also requires the face covering to be free of “obvious openings, vents, or holes” such as those found in masks of cheesecloth or tulle.

A small percentage of students had been wearing those, or disposable masks with the liner removed, said High School Principal Cole Klein. The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, as well as Zachariah DeYoung, a doctor with the Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center, had advised the district that while the masks met with the bare minimum under the executive order, they would not be able to limit the spread of aerosols. Students wearing those masks would also be more likely to be quarantined in the event of a COVID-19 exposure, the Health Department told Klein.

“Those students wearing those types of masks would be viewed by the health department as not wearing the mask at all,” he said Wednesday. “And that would increase the risk and increase the number of close contacts in our in our classrooms.”

Students who refuse to wear a face mask or to wear one properly will be sent home, the policy states. Hill declined to say how many students had been sent home since the start of the policy.

After discussion with Elementary School Principal Anders Hill on the first day of school, the fifth-grader’s face coverings were approved by Superintendent Doreen Kramer, Rajala said.

The eighth-grader was told to change into a different mask on the first day. The 10th-grader was also pulled out of class during seventh hour on the first day and told to change to a different style of mask. His 10th-grader’s face covering was accepted on the second day after discussions with High School Principal Cole Klein, he said.

“There were numerous other students with similar styles,” he said. “Though the face coverings were accepted, they sustained repeated harassment not from fellow students but from some staff about putting a different face covering on … office staff poking their staff into a classroom and singling out my child, as opposed to others, saying to pull their mask up.”

Rajala said other staff members have reached out quietly in support, but are afraid to come forward in fear of retaliation.

Two Houghton faculty tested positive for COVID-19 last week, one at the elementary school and one at the middle and high school building.

Rajala said his eighth-grade student had classes with the middle school teacher who recently tested positive for COVID. He said he knew of at least six other students who had that teacher who had been wearing face coverings that had not met the district’s standards.

“The health department determined no staff or students were at high risk of exposure … how can face coverings deemed not acceptable to be worn by the school be acceptable by the health department and meet the safety protocols?” he said.

Andrew Moyle, who has children in sixth and eighth grades, said his children had been frustrated by the inconsistency in teachers’ policies. His sixth-grader had told him he didn’t want to go back to school, he said.

“I do believe that if you want to stick with the mask as a recommendation, as a requirement, then do so, but don’t do it to the point where it’s being micromanaged to the point where kids feel like they’re getting bullied,” he said.

David Rowe, whose son is a high school junior, said his son had put on a different face mask after being challenged over the one he was wearing. He asked the district to establish mask guidelines, train faculty and staff on what the guidelines are, and identify who in the building is responsible for enforcing the guidelines.

“You cannot have one student be challenged by a staff or faculty members go down to the principal’s office, get cleared to go back to this classroom, and two classes later get challenged again,” he said.

Klein said administrators are constantly problem-solving and finding the safest way to keep the school open for instruction. About 80% of high school students returned for face-fo-face instruction, he said. The district consulted the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department and other local health officials and doctors to find a solution that provides the maximum safety with the least restriction.

“We’ve had to make an adjustment to identify what type of face covering is going to provide that maximum cover to reduce the risk of COVID exposure to our students and staff,” he said.

Having proper face coverings is particularly important, Klein said, since even with the reduced enrollment, many classes are unable to fully comply with the 6-foot distancing guidelines.

“We are doing our best,” he said. “A good majority of our students want to be here. They want to be safe. And we’re all working hard to ensure this happens.”

Klein said while they had anticipated an adjustment period, the idea of masks that didn’t meet the requirement had not been on his radar at the start of the year.

“It threw us a little bit of a curveball,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve had to adjust, and as we adjust, there’s been some growing pains there. But us being on the same page and consistent as possible from classroom to classroom, that is absolutely essential to this policy being effective.”

Athletic Director John Sanregret said he and other athletic directors in the conference have met to set up consistent protocols regarding spectators and other COVID-19 related issues. The COVID-19 issue has been the most challenging one he’s dealt with in 25 years of education, he said.

“It’s a really difficult challenge right now for everybody,” he said. “I can only tell you that we’re trying our best every day to meet the needs of every student and recognize that health and safety is our top priority of everybody.”


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