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H-PT board discusses COVID restrictions

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Diana Hocking, geometry teacher at Houghton High School, speaks to the Houghton-Portage Township Schools Board Monday.

HOUGHTON — COVID-19 precautionary measures were again a big topic of Monday’s Houghton-Township Schools board meeting

On Thursday, the district announced it would not require students or staff to be masked for the fall semester. Superintendent Doreen Kramer said Thursday she did not plan to require vaccinations, but was awaiting guidance from the Michigan High School Athletic Association on fall sports.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a number of recommendations in June, including mask-wearing, screening testing and quarantining.

Early word is that testing would be free, although Kramer hadn’t gotten word officially, she said Monday. She also had not heard word on what the standards would be for quarantining.

Diana Hocking, a geometry teacher at Houghton High School, urged the board not to continue quarantines for people who had been near someone who tested positive for COVID. She described the quarantines as a “nightmare, academically and logistically.” Of the 200-plus quarantines at the high school last year, she knew of none who contracted COVID from exposure at school, she said.

“Students need to be in the classroom,” she said. “They need to be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities and in life in general.”

Even if MDHHS escalates the recommendations into mandates, local districts should resist, she said.

The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department is working on recommendations for the coming year, Kramer said. Two or three superintendents have been meeting with the health department.

“If our current trends were to hold, then none of this would be an issue,” Trustee Brad Baltensperger said. “On the other hand, if we turn out like los Angeles, with massive increases in hospitalization for under-40 people, then at some point that becomes relevant.”

Treasurer Rob Fay hoped the district could respond to the local situation, as opposed to being driven by directives from Lansing that didn’t take local variances into account.

“If there’s going to be local control, and our local health department who we’ve got the relationships with is giving us recommendations that make sense — and I’m speaking as a parent as much as a board member right now — that’s worth discussing,” he said. “But the blanket ‘Thou shalt do this’ when it doesn’t impact our area, I think personally I disagree with.”

Baltensperger noted that while Houghton County had largely fared well during the pandemic, U.P. counties such as Delta, Dickinson and Gogebic had been the hardest-hit per capita.

The board also heard from Kramer that the district was projected to have more students this fall. Early estimates show a 17-student increase at the high school and 10 at the middle school.

The budget passed in June assumed 1,375 students, a drop of about 30.

Kramer and board members did not anticipate losing many students to the Copper Island Academy, which starts this fall. So far only one student has requested a transfer of records, which occurs before students transfer schools, Kramer said.

The state’s new budget gives Houghton $589 more per student, the biggest increase Kramer could recall. President Nels Christopherson asked if there was any precedent for increases of that size being reversed in a year or two. Kramer said in her time as superintendent, the state has at times limited the amount of an increase, but the foundation grant amount has stayed on an upward trajectory.

Most of Monday’s agenda was given over to a series of annual resolutions delegating duties, reaffirming memberships and the like.

The board selected Anderson, Tackman & Company to serve as the district’s new auditor. Rukkila, Negro & Associates which the district had worked with for many years, is not doing school auditing this year after the death this year of longtime auditor Debbie Bradford, Board President Nels Christopherson said.

The first day of the school year was designated as Sept. 7.

The district hired five teachers: Jenny-Meade Butler (chemistry). John Filpus (shop), Andrea Jeannote (high school English), Devon Lyberg (social worker) and Kimberly Stadt (high school English). The social worker position was funded through COVID-19 relief money. Kramer said she would look to find space in the budget to maintain the position permanently.

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