By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Oxford Community Schools had to switch its mask policy at the last minute after Oakland County Health Division issued an emergency order afternoon Aug. 24, the day before school started. The district had planned to start the school year with a mask-optional policy.
The new health order requires all people to wear masks inside enclosed buildings at any “educational institution” from pre-K to grade 12. The order applies to all students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. There are exceptions for children four years old and younger, and those with confirmed medical exemptions.
(To read Oxford’s reaction to this mandate, click HERE.)
The announcement from the county caught the school district by surprise. “We have been requesting and waiting on guidance from OCHD all summer,” Oxford administration stated in a district-wide email Aug. 24. “We are concerned about our ability to implement this in less than 24 hours. Many families may not have this information in time for tomorrow or might have medical issues that require documentation that may take some time to acquire.”
Because of the lack of notice, the district did not enforce masks for students the first three days of school, though they were “strongly recommended.” Staff and visitors were required to mask up immediately. The district adopted the mandate “in its entirety” beginning Monday, Aug. 30.
The masking issue has been fraught, with parents on both sides of the debate. “As a public school district, we represent ALL of you in our community,” wrote Supt. Tim Throne and School Board President Tom Donnelly in a joint follow-up letter to the district Aug. 25. “It is imperative we keep our doors open to safely educate all of your children. That is our first priority and we will do everything in our power to reach that goal.”
Since this is the first county-level health order the district has received, the administration sought guidance and clarification on interpreting the scope of the order as well as penalties for non-compliance. “It was communicated to us by multiple law firms that we would risk punitive measures including fines and, more importantly, school closure if we do not comply with the order. This is an unacceptable potential outcome as we are not willing to jeopardize the educational opportunity of every Oxford student.”
A printable mask exclusion form was posted on the district website Aug. 26. The district said it would honor medical mask exclusion forms from last year for the time being, but up-to-date documentation will be required “prior to the second semester.”
The first confirmed COVID-19 case of the school year was reported Aug. 25, at Oxford Middle School. The case was present at school Aug. 20 for WEB Day (orientation) activities. Two more cases at OMS were confirmed by Aug. 27, bringing the district total of active cases to three, with 31 students in quarantine, all at OMS. There is no evidence of in-school transmission, according to the district.
The district’s weekly COVID-19 report will begin again Friday, Sept 3. All coronavirus-related communications can be found under the COVID-19 tab at oxfordschools.org.
The district also created a Frequently Asked Questions section on the website with specific interpretations provided by district legal counsel.
According to the FAQ, children who refuse to comply with the order will be excluded from school. “If students do not qualify for a medical exemption and refuse to wear a mask, they may be subject to discipline for insubordination per our Student Code of Conduct. We will make a good faith effort to remind students and have plenty of masks we can provide students. No child will be forced to wear a mask. Instead, a parent will be called to pick up the child.”
The order does not apply to students, staff, or visitors at extracurricular activities, sporting events or practices while outdoors.
In response to the recent policy changes some parents have asked about changing schools within the district, to or from Oxford Virtual Academy. The district agreed to re-open the transfer window “to accommodate families’ choices.” Families must complete an in-district transfer form by midnight on Wednesday, Sept 1.
Space is limited at OVA this year, so if there is a large number of transfer requests, the district might use a lottery. District administration stressed that all transfers are a full year commitment.