Michigan school districts navigating heated debates over COVID-19 guidance, policies

Posted at 1:12 PM, Sep 01, 2021

(WXYZ) — School administrators have been thrust into a national political debate throughout the summer, and now with the school year beginning and kids in the classroom five days a week, emotions are running high as districts make decisions.


Communication in any profession is important, but when it comes to your kids, COVID policies and schools, a lack of planning could not only leave parents searching for answers, but administrators, too.

From heated debates on masks, to mixed messaging on the proper guidance, school districts in Southeast Michigan have been trying to make sense of the messages.

“What’s happening and what you’re seeing is every board everywhere in the country, local boards having to navigate this conversation alone," said Chris Timmis, superintendent of Dexter Public Schools.


Timmis says when it comes to effective communication, no one was on the same page, different school districts had different rules. There was no uniform message being sent, just recommendations from state and local health officials, widening the divide between school districts and parents.

"We all have felt a loss of control through the entire pandemic. We are just yearning for the predictable, and it would be great if everyone knew what to do and we all did it. But people wanted guidance in June for a September decision," said Timmis.

And by planning that far ahead in an ever-changing environment with COVID-19, it’s difficult because then the message can change.

School districts also face another issue when parents request information about COVID cases, school districts can cite privacy requirements under HIPPA and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which protects a student's educational records.

"We do have to protect people's privacy and their identities, and I think if people stop and think about what they would want if they were in the same situation, they would want their children to have their identities to be protected,” said Dr. Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.

Dr. Moje also added that there are ways to notify parents if there is a COVID case without revealing the student's identity, and those policies are already in place by districts.

Superintendent of Novi Public Schools Dr. Stephen Matthews says he has also faced the same problems as Dexter with effective communication coming from the state.

While it looked good on paper, the bad game of telephone continued through word of mouth when it came down to the school year approaching.

"In verbal communications that people heard in interviews and on the TV and radio, they would hear that they would like schools to mandate certain behaviors and so there was kind of a confusing message being sent to school districts and superintendents and the parents," said Dr. Matthews.

But just last week, health departments in Oakland and Wayne counties joined for a district wide mask mandate, making sure everyone was on the same page clarifying expectations from parents and students.

“ I don’t want to point fingers. I just wish collectively we could all agree what we are going to do so we can get out of this pandemic,” said Dr. Matthews.