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By Carol Stiffler

The start of the 2021-2022 school year is just days away, and school districts have been tasked with making preparations to handle the ongoing COVID pandemic.

At the start of the last school year, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had been signing executive orders mandating sweeping COVID protocols impacting public places, including schools. This year, following her loss of executive powers and with an apparent unwillingness to make recommendations now, school boards have been setting the standards.

They’re doing so with feedback from parents and guidance from local health departments. Locally, the LMAS District Health Department released an advisory on Friday, August 27, strongly recommending everyone wear a mask when indoors in any public building. That advisory was prompted by a sharp increase in COVID cases in the LMAS district – which logged 221 new cases in August alone – and news that 93% of the sequenced cases are of the Delta strain.

“Last year didn’t see a lot of kids get COVID,” said Kerry Ott, LMAS spokesperson. “They were distanced, masking.”

Lack of those mitigation protocols spurred the latest LMAS advisory to mask up, get vaccinated, and keep distance from others.

Local districts have formed their back-to-school policies.

At Tahquamenon Area Schools, students will be required to wear masks on busses. (This is a federal mandate that schools discussed and agreed to comply with.) Masks and vaccines are recommended but not required in the school building. Guests are currently welcome in the building. School board trustee Jeff Puckett said some parents have told him they will not send their students to Newberry if masks are required–making obvious the difficult position school districts are in when creating COVID policies.

At Engadine Consolidated Schools, students will wear masks on the bus. Once at school, masks are optional. Guests will not be allowed inside the school building during school hours, though the public is still welcome at the library and in the school office. Anyone who needs assistance at the school but prefers not to enter the building can call (906) 477-6313.

At Three Lakes Academy in Curtis, students will mask up on the bus. Inside the school, masks are optional and will be provided if a student or staff member wants one. Air purifiers will run in every classroom and office, and guests are currently allowed inside the school.

At Burt Township School District in Grand Marais, students will wear masks on the bus. At a special school board meeting on Monday, August 30, the school board listened to a recommendation from new Superintendent Tony Barnes to require masks at school by every student, faculty, and staff member. Barnes said the recommendation came from a desire to keep the school open so students can learn in person and was spurred by the recent LMAS advisory. The school board voted 3-2 in favor of requiring masks, in the hope that the mandate can be rescinded later in the year.

At Whitefish Township Community Schools in Paradise, students will wear masks on the bus. Masks will be left optional at the school, and field trips, sports, and visitor policies have returned to normal. The Whitefish Township school year began on Monday, August 23.

Now that the more-contagious Delta variant has become the predominant strain, all Upper Peninsula counties are seeing a sharp increase in COVID activity. Ott fears it may be a matter of days before each school district has its own COVID cases and is forced back into quarantine scenarios.