St. Joseph Public Schools

ST. JOSEPH — A revision to the district’s return-to-learn plan by the St. Joseph Public School board is a baby step to normalcy, Superintendent Jenny Fee said.

The board adopted an amendment Monday to the district’s plan, which makes mask wearing optional for school board meetings and gives Fee the power to add exemptions to the universal mask policy.

The district still strongly recommends those attending board meetings wear a face mask. Fee said the revision makes sense since few students attend, attendance is optional and the district has venues large enough so social distancing can be practiced. Additionally, quarantine rules do not apply to board meetings like in the classroom.

Fee said she had also wanted this revision to end the mask requirement for after-school activities and events, but decided against it in light of the spike in cases and recent Michigan Department of Health and Human Services mask advisory.

New COVID-19 cases more than doubled in Berrien County from Nov. 4-10 to Nov. 11-17, mirroring last year’s spike.

“I would like at some point for us to consider removing the mask mandate at all after-school activities and events beyond the instructional day, ’cause I think that’s a good transitional step,” Fee said.

Quarantine rules are also not applicable to after-school events, Fee said.

Based on her added powers, Fee said board members would not have to convene for a special board meeting to amend the return-to-learn plan to end the mask mandate for after-school events following the end of the current surge.

The exemption power would enable her to move quickly when conditions are right for adding exemptions to the masking requirement, Fee said.

However, Fee said she would only make such exemptions having communicated with the board ahead of time. Kerry Wright, vice president of the board, voiced his support because of the good communication between the board and Fee thus far.

“What you’ve outlined for us makes great sense as far as this being the first step,” Treasurer Chris Cook said.

Cook said current masking measures have been successful in preventing student quarantines and thanked Fee for her work on the masking issue, which President Barry Conybeare echoed.

“Just a bunch of little baby steps,” Fee said. “The board meeting one, and then moving up to other baby steps.”

The district instituted universal masking at an August meeting, which it upheld after the Berrien County Health Department had to rescind its public health order on mandating masks for schools.

Fee said she used publicly available data from Berrien County school districts that revealed districts with universal masking mandates had 3.4 students who were quarantined per positive case, while districts without such mandates had to quarantine 10.4 students per positive case.

Other business

The board entered into closed session following the approved recommendation of the return-to-learn plan for a superintendent evaluation.

“We arrived at a consensus and decision that Ms. Fee has performed in the highly effective category,” Conybeare said.

The board used the Michigan Association of School Boards standards for evaluating Fee

“I could not be more pleased with Jenny and her role,” Conybeare said.

Alex Schaeffer, partner at Kruggel Lawton CPAs, presented the district’s audit. He said the report found no material weaknesses, deficiencies or violations.

Conybeare and Fee thanked Brenda Graham, the district’s chief financial officer, for her work on the audit.

This story has been updated.

Contact: jknot@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @knotjuliana