Parents protest lack of virus restrictions in Grosse Pointe schools; others applaud

Hani Barghouthi Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Betsy Steinert’s last name.Grosse Pointe Farms — Parents and staff worried about increased COVID transmission rates and students' return to school in the fall, and those who support relaxed policies are raising their voices as schools prepare to reopen for in-person classes.

Grosse Pointe Public School System parents and others were the latest to line up Monday night with familiar positions: follow the numbers or let parents decide. 

Hours into a board of education meeting, parents yelled out as the superintendent, Jon Dean, announced that the district would not be enforcing a mask mandate in schools. News emerged Friday that in addition to not requiring masks, the district also would not mandate social distancing.

"Show us the data!" some parents said as others joined in agreement, pressing the district to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. 

Others balked at a return to strict mandates, saying parents should be allowed to choose whether or not their children mask up. 

"We should have the liberty to not mask our children. That should be our choice," Dona DeSantis-Reynolds, who has grandchildren in the district, told the board. "... If we feel that masking is not necessary, then the board should not be mandating us to mask."

There were cheers and jeers as Dean tried to explain the reason behind the district's decision to make masks optional in the fall and forgo other federal and state recommendations for almost 7,500 students when in-person classes resume on Sept. 7.

Sarah Eisenberg stands outside of Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms with her sign before the school board's meeting on August 9, 2021.

Last week, Dean sent a letter to parents and the community highlighting the district's stance on COVID measures, saying that other measures, like virus testing and vaccines are not required. Neither are desk or face shields, though they can be requested.

Masks are "recommended in school buildings, especially for unvaccinated individuals according to the district, and required on buses.

Dean on Monday cited relatively low infection rates in Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods, parts of which are included in the school district, adding that the board would re-evaluate its decisions if numbers changed. 

"The reality of COVID in or not in our community changes, and we are going to make the changes as necessary," he said. "We're going to start adding back any or all of the COVID mitigation strategies we had before, including mandatory masking, that's what we need to do, but based on our current data, we don't believe that's where we need to be."

The CDC lists Wayne County, in which the district lies, as having "substantial" community transmission. 

More than 66% of county residents are vaccinated, according to the county website.

"You can see our numbers are increasing," said Shannon Byrne, a social studies teacher in the district, referring to the spread. "And I hope that as communication goes forward, we can be really transparent and clear about where those numbers are."

Jon Dean, left, superintendent of Grosse Pointe Public Schools, and President Joseph Herd talk at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms during the school board's meeting on August 9, 2021.

Board member Colleen Worden said infection rates outside of the two cities need to be considered since not everyone who works in Grosse Pointe schools lives in the city. 

Many who spoke, sometimes passionately, questioned the need to mask students and supported keeping it optional. 

"Keep the children free," one man said to applause. "... What happened to my body, my choice?"

Another parent said: "If you believe that the masks stop the spread of the virus, then your masked child is fully protected from my own unmasked child."

But a stream of others, including medical professionals, stayed past 11 p.m. to support mask-wearing and stronger safety measures. 

Dr. Rebecca Lombel, a pediatric nephrologist who lives in the district, cautioned the board and district to be "proactive rather than reactive."

"While masks provide protection to the wearer, they ... have the greatest benefit when everybody wears them," Lombel said.

Another parent questioned how her son could stay safe during in-person instruction.

"Without a virtual option, there’s no way for my son to safely continue his education with Grosse Pointe Public Schools," Stacey DeRubeis said.

The virtual learning program for the 2021-22 school year was dropped due to a lack of interest, the district said. Last school year, the district had about 1,100 students enrolled from K-12 for online learning. 

The protests Monday began before the board meeting started. About 20 people in masks gathered outside of Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms.

"Grosse Pointe is not a bubble, and I want I want to remind people of that," said Betsy Steinert.

Steinert and other parents carried signs reading “Keep our kids safe,” standing with a prop of the Grim Reaper and plastic tombstones. 

“It seems like there are just no COVID protocols being enacted at all,” Steinert said about the district's plans. Young students can't be vaccinated, "so they should all be wearing masks. It's common sense to me. And the fact that that's not going to happen for my children terrifies me.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has endorsed universal masking in schools. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updated recommendations for schools, saying the guidance for the 2021-22 academic year reflects the most current recommendations by the CDC to help schools operate safely, even as school districts in Michigan are allowed to make their own rules on masking.

Jon Dean, superintendent of Grosse Pointe Public Schools, talks to parents at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms during a school board meeting.

The recommendations developed as the delta variant, which is reported to be almost twice as as contagious as other strains of the virus, has led to a surge in infection rates.

In late July, the seven-day average of reported cases in the United States was around 60,000, five times higher than it was just a month earlier, according to the CDC. The delta variant is now responsible for most new infections in the country.

Monday wasn't the first time parents or teachers in the district haveprotested the district's actions.

More than 100 teachers stayed home from work in April, days after the district changed its COVID-19 contact tracing policy to reduce the number of students in quarantine.

Substitute teachers, central office staff and teachers from other buildings and other staff  had to be deployed to cover classes for the 116 absent teachers, including 47 teachers at North High School.