Things get heated over mask mandates at LOCS meeting

Singer, Drakos and Bresett share their stance on in-school masking

By Megan Kelley

Review Writer

The Lake Orion Community Schools Board of Education met on Wednesday for their regularly scheduled meeting. Though the agenda was light, the district administration building was packed with parents and members of the community representing both sides of the recent mask mandate put into effect by the Oakland County Health Department (OCHD).

Despite the district’s plan to have masking be optional during the 2021-22 school year, on Aug. 24, the OCHD mandated that all students, staff and visitors in all schools, developmental kindergarten to 12th grade, be required to wear masks.

LOCS is expected to continue to follow this mandate, but it is unclear what the district plans to do once the mandate is lifted. Board Treasurer Jake Singer was the first to point this out after LOCS Superintendent Ben Kirby’s COVID-19 update.

“I feel now is the time for this board to have a discussion. The emergency order is going to eventually end. If it ends, and the health department has an expectation, or strongly recommends that COVID mitigation strategies should continue, what do we as a board want to be the principles that guide our superintendent’s development of operating protocols,” Singer said.

According to Singer, on Aug. 20, LOCS sent out a letter to families stating that the district’s plan for the 2021-22 school year “is reflective of what we believe reflects the community expectations regarding the implementation of mitigation strategies.”

“In our system of government, we are elected to represent the community’s expectations. Personally, I am not comfortable that this board was clear in communicating each of our expectations of the community we were elected to represent. We left Ben in an untenable position where he had to make a determination on an issue about which we should have been actively providing guidance,” said Singer. “Personally, I was not comfortable with the concept of choice. I do not think it is a true choice. While in a period where there is a virus deemed to currently be causing a global pandemic, I do not think families should be forced to make a choice to be exposed to the virus just to be able to participate in the in-person learning environment. There are reasonable precautions that could be put in place, and all level of public health authorities — federal, state and local — have issued recommendations for universal masking in pre-K through post-high school special education settings. I support following the recommendations of the public health authority that covers the Lake Orion attendance area as opposed to continuing to spend our time and the administration’s time trying to determine if we know better than people whose expertise is public health.”

Singer also apologized for not being “transparent” in his stance on masking and asked the board to have an open and honest discussion in public about where each of them stand on the issue.

However, board President Jim Weidman quickly shot down the request.

“The board supports the district in following the guidelines. We are in step with Oakland County Health Department. We’re following that and between now and the time that they change their guidance, a lot of things can happen,” Weidman said. “I think, A; it’s a moot point to discuss it any further tonight because we’ve already made a decision and that’s what we’re following. Two; between here and there, a lot of things can change and so to discuss dynamics that we are not aware of at this time would be kind of a futile attempt at taking a stab at the unknown.”

Singer responded by stating that he believed rejecting the request to engage in further discussion about the mask mandate would be a breach of their duties as board members and asked if the order were to be dropped, do they as a board feel they have adequately given guidance to their superintendent.

“If the county drops it before we meet again, I’m sure that Ben (Kirby) will take steps to convene the board to get necessary feedback to take the proper steps,” Weidman said.

Though Weidman was adamant that the board would not engage in a full discussion, Trustee Steve Drakos was more than willing to add his two cents, stating that should the order be dropped he would be in favor of masks remaining mandatory.

Trustee Danielle Bresett also spoke in favor of mandating masks in LOCS schools, sharing her own experience with COVID-19 and the social/emotional effects of quarantining and having to tell others that she had potentially exposed them.

While the district has committed to following mandates put in place by the OCHD, this is the first clear stance made by any of the seven board members.

Weidman, Vice President Brigit McQuiston and Trustee Susan Flaherty did not offer their opinions on the masking of students. Trustee Scott Taylor was absent from the meeting.

The idea of transparency and where board members stood on the issue was not lost on some who spoke during public comment.

“I thought it was interesting that you all were talking about that (transparency) tonight because if you don’t know what each other are thinking, it’s very difficult for us as parents to then decide what’s best for our children,” said district parent Becky Albert.

Of the 22 members of the public who spoke during public comment, it was split 50/50 between those in favor of the mask mandate and those against it.

While most parents who were against the mandate recognized that the district is not to blame for the mandate, they expressed their hope that when the mandate is lifted, the district will stand by their original plan of having masks be optional.

Public participation came to an abrupt halt when the final person used a portion of their allotted time to verbally attack a previous speaker who had shared that her mother-in-law had recently died of COVID-19. LOCS public participation rules, which are read out loud prior to public participation, strictly prohibits personal attacks.

After microphones were cut off, Chief Harold Rossman of the Lake Orion Police Department entered the room to calm an increasingly emotional crowd. The meeting ended shortly after.

 

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