Berrien Springs schools - web only

BERRIEN SPRINGS — The Berrien Springs school board decided this week to table a proposed mask mandate until January.

At Thursday’s school board meeting, school officials said attendance and staffing issues could prove to be a financial liability for the district.

Assistant Superintendent Thomas Bruce, Business Manager Ellen Hasse, High School Principal Ryan Pesce and Middle School Principal Steve Spenner spoke about financial repercussions of closing school or going remote.

Pesce said absences are up significantly from a similar time in the 2019-20 year. The district’s middle school had 59 staff quarantines with 31 positions left unfilled and no substitutes available, while the high school had 78 staff quarantines with 35 unfilled positions.

Spenner said students are trending significantly worse in terms of academic achievement since the start of the pandemic. He presented numbers comparing the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic school years.

Bruce compared Berrien Springs data with other area schools and said the district has had more staff positive COVID cases and quarantines than other districts, as well as many more students quarantined.

Berrien Springs has had 52 positive student cases and 433 students quarantined this semester.

Since the state hasn’t granted a waiver for remote learning this year, Hasse said the district could lose state funding if not enough students do remote learning and could be forced to add days to the school year.

Parents speaking to the board Thursday continued to question the need for masks and quarantines.

Angela Bell said the district can fix its attendance issues by stopping the quarantining of healthy kids.

Susan Ewalt said parents should be making the decisions about masks and quarantines, claiming “COVID is going to be here forever and we can’t quarantine forever.”

Both parents and board members spoke about the threats that have kept some area schools closed.

School Board President Paul Toliver, who is also the Berrien Springs-Oronoko Township police chief, said his department has investigated several threats made against the district and found all to be non-credible.

Parents said they believe the increase in threats made against schools is a sign that masks and quarantines have to go as they are causing mental health problems in students.

A new league

Board members took the first steps to create a new athletic conference with four other area school districts.

No name has been chosen for the conference, whose membership includes Benton Harbor, Brandywine, Buchanan and Dowagiac, in addition to Berrien Springs.

Superintendent David Eichberg said officials from the five districts are working out the final details of the new conference including what its name will be. He said all five school boards have approved the plan and will vote on a formal resolution in January.

“We’re working on bylaws and a league name,” he said. “All five schools are very excited about this opportunity to engage in athletics with districts our size and that are local.”

Eichberg told board members last month that the BCS Conference was losing a number of school districts, including Bridgman and South Haven. He said Berrien Springs, Brandywine and Buchanan decided to reach out to Benton Harbor and Dowagiac to form the new conference.