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By Lauren Burton

This Monday, August 16 marked the last monthly Tahquamenon Area Schools board meeting prior to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.

Trustee Michelle Zellar was absent.

Angie MacArthur, superintendent of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (EUPISD), joined the TAS board meeting via Zoom to discuss the EUPConnect Collaborative. The EUPCC is an organization of EUP school districts, libraries, municipalities, and hospitals working to bring fiber internet connections to its residents.

Through the federal Rural Digital Opportunity (RDO) Fund, approximately $37 million will be coming into the EUP to lay fiber optic cables along roadways. “They’re going to lay about 1,500 miles of fiber that will connect to the driveways [of EUP residents],” explained MacArthur. The collaborative aims to bring “equitable and reliable internet activity” to every 9-1-1 address in the region.

Participating school districts are asked to donate three percent of their federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund to the collaborative. TAS, which anticipates receiving more than $2.9 million for their ESSER fund, would be contributing just over $88,500.

Installation of fiber lines in the EUPISD is slated for next summer.

For now, the EUPCC is simply looking for resolutions of support from area boards. No ESSER funds have been distributed yet, so exact number for contributions are not set.

After lengthy discussion, the board decided they had too many questions to pass a resolution of support for EUPCC. They tabled the discussion for their September meeting.

The board went on to discuss the COVID plan for the upcoming year. They modified their current policy to allow for online learning, if it becomes necessary.

Currently, TAS does not plan to require mandatory mask wearing inside the school, though students are required by the state to mask up on the bus.

Contact tracing regulations and quarantining will vary by situation. If the school is not following health officials’ guidelines – for example, requiring masking – any unvaccinated person exposed to COVID for at least 15 minutes will need to quarantine for a full 14 days.

Both the CDC and MDHHS recommend that schools require universal masking indoors, a guideline that Trustee Jeff Puckett advocates following.

“I think it’s the right thing to do for the safety and health of our students, and also I think if we don’t do it, it puts us up to some liability,” he said.

Puckett said he has been fielding concerns from parents who worry that masking impairs oxygen levels and can affect speech, but his research on those suggestions led him to believe those issues do not exist.

“I also had people contact me saying if you’re going to force my kid to wear a mask, he’s changing schools. I said that would sadden me, I hate to hear that…but I won’t be held hostage by ultimatums on a decision that I think is wrong.”

Trustee Alicia Heim countered, stating she feels it should be left up to parents.

Other board members brought up concerns regarding how to enforce mask usage and options for providing off-campus education in the event students refuse to wear masks.

Ultimately, the TAS COVID-19 Plan  came down to a roll call vote. The plan passed in a 3-2 vote with trustees Heim, Klusmeyer, and McCraren voting in favor and trustees Vincent and Puckett against.

In other business, the board approved the hiring of two new staff. Alyssa Stehlin will take over as the new 7th/8th grade social studies teacher, and Haley Stark will be the new K-6th grade secretary.

Two employees are departing TAS. The board accepted a letter of resignation from Jason Tokar, long-time baseball coach, and the retirement of technology director Amy Marchese, who has been with TAS for over 30 years.

The board approved adding a long-term/permanent substitute position for the 2021-22 school year. This will be a full time position, but the employee will fill in wherever a substitute is needed for the day.

“Substitutes are very hard to come by,” said Stacy Price, superintendent and 7-12 principal. “This would allow somebody in the district, every day, to do whatever is in need of doing… It would guarantee at least one of the positions every day would be covered, or even a multitude of them.”

During the 2020-2021 school year, TAS utilized delayed starts every other Wednesday to allow for curriculum building and staff meetings. This year these meetings will take place once per month on the last Wednesday of each month (unless otherwise scheduled). Students will have a half-day of school on these days.

Minor changes were approved for the staff, student/parent, and athletic handbooks. A new teacher handbook has also been created and approved. Most notably, the athletic handbook now states that all travel to away games will be self-transport.

“We have four bus runs for the regular school day. We have four bus drivers. We don’t have a sub bus driver,” stated Price. “I’m not crazy about it, but we can’t cancel bus routes and not transport kids to school.”

The first day of school will be September 7.