By Tom Hoogterp

The Tahquamenon Area Schools Board of Education met in the cafeteria November 16 with ample spacing between participants. Trustees Jeff Puckett and Jon Brown, as well as more than 50 community members attended via Zoom. All in attendance knew that there were difficult and unpopular decisions to be made.

Sunday’s decision to close high schools (9-12) colleges, and dine-in restaurants and bars statewide, along with a recent COVID-19 case in Newberry Elementary School resulting in quarantine for 42 students, presented the board with an inescapable duty to take action.

Board President Brian Rahilly opened the meeting asking for comments from the public. The one citizen in attendance told the board, “Many elementary students will suffer if they can’t go to school.” She stated her preference that children stay in school, “or at least have the choice.”

“That is the decision the board will have to make tonight,” Rahilly responded.

A number of community members and school staff contributed via ZOOM. “Face-to-face is important,” a caller agreed, “but I’m concerned about my health and my family’s.” Trustee Michelle Zellar summarized (at the request of the writers) emails supporting face-to-face school and others saying staff and student safety were paramount. All were in agreement that virtual learning is a poor substitute for kids in front of teachers.

Staff members related dealing with “continuous” issues with mask compliance, especially in grades 7-12. “No matter the discipline,” one teacher said, “there’s not compliance.” She wondered if she got any teaching done because of time spent with masks. The comments and emails filled more than half an hour. “It’s a disservice to keep them online,” one person said.  “The burden on some families will be immense,” another opined.

After some discussion about mask compliance and possible (or impossible) remedies, board members weighed in with their opinions. Zellar made a strong pitch for in-person learning, though she called it a privilege. “Wear a mask or go online!… Our kids need to be in front of teachers.”

Rahilly split the issue of on-line vs. virtual into separate questions for grades K-6 and 7-12. Trustee Lawrence Vincent made a motion to go to virtual learning in grades 7-12 Wednesday, November 18 (as required) and remain virtual through the end of the first semester.  Puckett seconded the motion, adding “I understand the difficulties it imposes on children and parents.”

Zellar maintained her resistance to the “long period,” suggesting, “We (should) go with the governor until December 8.”

Jon Brown reminded the board that they didn’t want to be jumping kids back and forth. Vincent modified his motion to make grades 7-12 virtual until the Christmas break, then re-evaluate. The board agreed to that compromise, with Zellar dissenting.

The discussion moved to the elementary school with Puckett stating, “My position hasn’t changed.” He motioned, and Vincent supported a plan to move the elementary to virtual learning on the same schedule as grades 7-12.

After considering the impact of telling parents that their small children will suddenly be leaving school “tomorrow,” Brown motioned to continue in-person learning in grades K-6 until thanksgiving break, then going virtual until Christmas vacation. Puckett and Zellar cast “nay” votes. The motion was approved 5-2.

Price broke in with some good news: The new computers showed up a month early and staff prepared them for distribution to high schoolers. She thanked the board for carefully considering and acting on a difficult issue in which no answer could be completely satisfactory. She announced that elected school board candidate Amber Taylor was required to withdraw from the position because she is employed by the school district. The announcement left the board with 2 positions to be filled (by appointment) before year’s end.

Brian Rahilly then announced his resignation from the board, effective November 17, because he was elected to a judicial position and an individual may not hold two elected positions.

He urged community members to get involved and fill the vacant board positions. He promised potential candidates “sleepless nights and great rewards.” Finally, he thanked the school staff for their dedication and ability.

The board’s plan to discuss and approve the annual evaluation of Superintendent Stacy Price’s performance was tabled until the December 21 board meeting.