Passions run high over COVID and schools, but debate remains civil

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Across the country, school board meetings have erupted as parents and sometimes students have clashed about COVID vaccinations and masking. Some meetings have turned raucous and personal. School leaders have resigned or been removed. In and around Ingham County, people report that while interest and passions have run high, the climate had been civil.

East Lansing Public Schools

Shelley Davis Boyd, president of MacDonald Middle School’s parent council

Boyd said the parents’ council has a very close relationship with the school district’s administration and superintendent. 

“We’re constantly kept in the loop on what’s going on … the reaction has been very positive,” Boyd said. “We know everything the East Lansing Public School District is doing to protect our students and our staff members. Their communication has been an integral part of the wide acceptance of the policies in the COVID protocols.” 

The board has been completely transparent with students’ families, Boyd said. 

“We have been very fortunate with the culture and acceptance in East Lansing Public Schools … I just feel so fortunate we have a trust-based relationship with the administration,” she said. “As a parent council and as a parent who has a child in high school and in middle school, that goes a long way. They’re doing everything they’ve always done, which is communicating and doing what’s in the best interest of our students and our staff.”

Wajeeha Kamal

Dori Leyko, superintendent

“Once we announced our mask mandate, I didn’t receive one email or have one person coming into a board meeting speaking out against it.”

—Isabella Martin

Chris Martin, board of education secretary

“I think that in our community we are pretty united on masking and vaccines.

As a district, we’ve said from day one we’re going to follow the science.”

—Taylor Truszkowski

Rinard Pugh, principal of Red Cedar Elementary 

“Following the COVID-19 prevention strategies and serial testing has helped keep students in school, which is a positive thing.”

—Amaya Kuznicki

Bradley Baryo, East Lansing High School teacher

“For the most part, people are understanding of what the situation is and take responsibility to make sure people stay safe.”

—Hunter Gadwell

Tina Crawford, Green Elementary physical education teacher

“The kids have adapted really well. I’m just baffled at the parents in other districts. The kids have been good about it. It’s really the parents.”

—Kayla Nelsen

Cody Harrell, East Lansing High School journalism teacher

“Parents are, in general, supportive, and I’ve not heard one parent complain at all about the mask mandate … They understand how important it is in the City of East Lansing.”

—Daniel Zivian

Mason Area Schools 

Kurt Creamer, school board president 

“Over the last year and a half, we seem to have a lot more involvement by the public than we used to … If we’re Zooming, we might get 300-400 people in a meeting, and if we’re live, we might get 30 or 40 people who show up.”

“There’s tension in the meetings, but I don’t see that as a problem. I think boards in general function better if you have multiple different viewpoints. If everybody felt the same way, that wouldn’t be very representative of our community.

“As a board, I think we do a good job of listening to each other’s opinions. We may or may not agree with them, but that’s OK. We respect each other enough to listen and understand everyone’s point of view. At the end of the day, any motions that are made, majority vote wins and it’s everybody’s job at that point to support the board’s decision and move on.” 

—Abigail Comar

 Kurt Creamer, school board president

“The Mason Public Schools Board of Education is made up of seven dedicated Mason residents. Our role as a school board member is to be the voice of the community. As we all know, it has not been easy to navigate the nuances of public education recently, but our community believes in the District and we encourage families and residents to attend meetings, provide feedback and support the mission of the District.”

—Veronica Bolanos

Bath Community Schools

Ann Chaffee, school board president

“We’ve gotten more emails than we normally ever get and more meeting participation. I know, right when COVID was beginning at one point when we were doing a Zoom call when we were restricted, we had over 100 people on ours, which for us, that’s huge because we usually don’t have very much participation.”

—Sam Sklar

DeWitt Public Schools

Jody McKean, DeWitt High School principal

“We really haven’t had issues with parents and students not agreeing with our decision to make students wear masks. We also believe that the students are responsible young adults and they’ve shown great maturity.”

—Ellie Bednarz

Williamston Community Schools

Nancy Deal, school board president 

“Obviously, the mask debate has been up and alive. We’ve received lots of emails and telephone calls from people who want their kids in masks, and the majority of the people that are showing up at board meetings are parents that don’t want their kids in masks. People are very, very passionate when they are advocating for their kid and what they believe in. So we’ve had some really passionate parents, on both ends. Whether they call, whether they send a really long passionate email, or whether they show up at a board meeting, we’ve heard a lot from them.

“Ingham County put out an executive order saying that for all schools in Ingham County, all kids will be in masks, K-12, so now it’s kind of out of our hands. Now that kids have to wear masks, it’s out of our hands, and things have calmed down a little bit.” 

“There is so much information out there. Whether it is positive, negative, right or wrong, people can dig it out and use it to their advantage either way. There is also a lot of steam behind the masks. This is not just a Williamston schools issue or a county issue, this is a state issue, a national issue. You hear of school boards all across the nation where people are showing up and voicing their concerns, positive or negative for masks. So I think all people, regardless of what they want, think they have a strong backing and all of the right information for their argument, mask or no masks.”

—Erin Bowling 

David Indish, school board trustee

Indish joined the board in January. He said the relationship between ther board and the public has been passionate but not hostile.

“I don’t know if tension is the right word. I keep going back to passion,” said Indish. “Everybody wants what’s best for their kids, and I don’t know if that necessarily puts them at odds, but you’re going to defend your position staunchly.”

Indish acknowledges that his inexperience with the school board gives him a different perspective than others.

“My perspective is probably very different from everybody else. Most of the people I’m serving with have been doing this for a long time,” Indish said. “I’ve come into this and this is just kind of how it’s been. So getting back into some normalcy will be interesting.”

—Thomas Chavez

Okemos Public Schools

John Hood, superintendent 

“Our public has been incredibly engaged. [We have] gratitude to our community for being so engaged in the educational processes. It has increased our transparency. Diverging feedback has influenced our decision making.

“It is certainly wearing being a public official. It’s been hard, but people have been respectful and civil about their disagreements. Sharing in a respectful way adds value to the opinion. People want the best for their kids.”

“We don’t always agree. [We’re] seeking to validate and show that people are heard. We listen, we acknowledge. We really seek to understand. I’m trying to give our kids the best chance at staying in-person. We can’t make everyone happy. I hope parents feel validated, even if the decision doesn’t change.”

—Kate Townley

Lansing School District

LaNette Hester, executive assistant to the superintendent 

“We have not experienced any harassment.  We have not had members of the public attend a Board of Education meeting for the past several months. The environment has been quiet. The board plans to discuss how to encourage and receive public participation and comment since none has been offered. Maybe by allowing people to record and submit comments electronically.”

—Julia Wallace