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Allendale Schools to make masks, other protocols optional

The district superintendent says he's relying on the data from last year as his reason for making the COVID protocol changes.

ALLENDALE, Mich. — Monday afternoon, the Ottawa County Department of Public Health (OCDPH) met to educational leaders to go over draft health orders and answer questions. Among those leaders was Allendale's superintendent, Dr. Garth Cooper. Midway through July, Cooper sent this letter to state leaders:

The letter - sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and OCDPH - outlines seven COVID protocols Cooper wants to change. First on the list - making masks voluntary for all students and staff.

“We did not require masks while students were in the classroom for the first six weeks of school last year," Cooper says. "We did not have a single case of a student transmitting the virus.”

Cooper says he's relying on the data from last year as his reason for the following changes:

  • Mask wearing should be voluntarily for students and staff.
  • Any consideration for required vaccination of students should include an option for parents to sign a waiver exempting their student based on personal preference. 
  • Any consideration for required vaccination of staff should also include an option for employees to sign a waiver exempting them from needing to vaccinate or wear a mask. 
  • Mandatory testing of student athletes should not be required for participation, and if it is considered, parents should have the right to sign a waiver to have their student not test yet still participate.
  • Contact tracing for quarantine should only include members of the same household.
  • Under no circumstances should participation in educational or extra-curricular experiences be based on vaccination or testing choices, as all students deserve equal access to educational opportunities.
  • Schools shall have total authority to hire any necessary personnel to meet the educational and health needs of students and staff. Medical personnel employed by the state or county health departments should not be placed in schools.

For Cooper, one of the biggest sticking points is the loss of in-person instruction. 

“We quarantined almost 1,600 kids last year," he says. "Only 1.4% of them ended up testing positive, that doesn’t warrant the number of lost instruction days.”

Cooper says when you add each student's lost time together, Allendale students lost roughly 12,000 days of in-classroom learning. He believes changing the quarantine rule to only require same household contact tracing will cut down on that loss significantly.

“Every one positive student meant between 14 and 16 students had to quarantine for up to 10 days.”

Cooper knows there's no single solution that will make everyone in the district happy. He calls it a balancing act, and says he worries over everything, from mosquitos spreading EEE, to new COVID-19 variants, to the common cold.

One think that won't be changing are the sanitization practices picked up from the pandemic: 

  • Spaced out lunchrooms and added locations for kids to eat
  • Kindergarten through 5th grade students will stay in smaller groups to limit spread
  • Common surfaces will be wiped down between class periods at the middle and high school levels

OCDPH will mandate anyone who tests positive will still have to isolate for 10 days, as will anyone living in the same house as someone who tests positive. Aside from that, all the other guidelines are recommendations, meaning Allendale's changes are likely to be in place by the time the school year starts.

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