Sheraton showdown: School board delays meeting over parent refusal to mask

The+Ann+Arbor+Board+of+Education+posts+its+own+mandatory+masking+signs+in+the+Sheraton+Hotel+meeting+room+because+the+hotel+does+not+have+a+mandatory+masking+policy.

Aaron J. Puno

The Ann Arbor Board of Education posts its own mandatory masking signs in the Sheraton Hotel meeting room because the hotel does not have a mandatory masking policy.

UPDATE – This article has been updated on Feb. 25 for corrections.

Wednesday’s Ann Arbor School Board meeting hadn’t convened for two full minutes before Trustee Susan Baskett called for a recess after several parents in attendance at the Sheraton Ann Arbor Hotel refused to wear face masks when ordered to do so by district officials. 

The impasse began before the meeting was officially called to order at 7:05 p.m. Two women, who asked to be identified only by their first names, arrived at the meeting without masks. Board staff asked them to comply with the district’s mask mandate, but they refused.

Michelle and Chanel, who were the first two women to arrive, stated that they did not intend to comply with the district’s mask orders but wanted to attend the meeting to hear district leaders speak on the issue of masking among other things.

“It’s not a protest,” said Michelle. “We just came to partake in the meeting and hear what was going on. We’re still very concerned about our kids being masked. The [Washtenaw County Health Department] has said ‘yeah, lift the mandates.’ A ton of schools are doing that, but not Ann Arbor.”

Board staff asked several times for the two women to mask up, but they refused, noting that the Sheraton Hotel does not have a mandatory mask policy.

Trustee Susan Baskett called for what was supposed to be a 15 minute recess; however, the Board of Education never returned to the Sheraton meeting room. Board members, along with Superintendent Jeanice K. Swift, mingled in the hallway talking with staff.

Another woman, parent Anna Hoffman, asked for the specific district policy which requires the use of masks at non-district facilities. She received a reply from a district official, stating simply that she should go to the district’s website and look under “COVID policies.” She would go on not to wear a mask for the course of the evening.

“Honestly, I didn’t really walk in here with the intention of starting anything,” said Hoffman. “I saw other people wearing a mask, I thought that there were looser rules here like there are everywhere else. I was approached and asked to put [a mask] on, and I asked under what authority was this enforced? It’s been an hour and they have not been able to produce a specific policy.” 

Around 8:30 p.m., after board members had retreated to a small conference room near the hotel’s lobby, a statement flashed on the projector screen in the hotel conference room:  “Regrettably, attendees at the meeting venue on February 23, 2022, created an atmosphere that was not aligned with the values of health, safety, and respect for our vulnerable community members,” read the statement.  “It was clearly stated and posted that everyone who attends or participates in Board of Education meetings will adhere to Ann Arbor Public School District’s indoor masking requirement. The individuals refused multiple requests to wear masks thus prompting a recess.” 

The board has come under fire recently over several other issues. Organizations like Ann Arbor Reasonable Return, a group fiercely opposed to virtual schooling, have challenged board decisions on issues like school closures throughout social media. The board has faced public criticism, as well, for the ongoing decision to meet in the conference rooms of area hotels, as opposed to a school building, citing the inconvenience of custodial staff having to clean the room before school meets the next day.

“I think that factor entered into my decision not to mask,” continued Hoffman. “If they were meeting in a school building, owned by the taxpayers, they may have some authority to put in some rules over masking. But, because they are meeting in a public hotel, something I’m also paying for as a taxpayer, the same rules don’t apply,” she said.

In the upcoming November elections, Hoffman predicts that because of their controversial COVID policies, none of the Board members will retain their seats.

Dr. Kimberly Monroe, M.D., a physician in the Ann Arbor area, was one of over 400 doctors to sign a memorandum calling for a fully in-person return to school for the 2021-22 school year, and attended the meeting.

“At that point we had multiple different agencies, like the CDC and the AAP – lots of different medical governing bodies, all supporting the return to face-to face-learning,” said Monroe. “I was glad that we returned to in-person learning for this school year, but I’m disappointed in the fact that children have missed a lot of in-person days.”

Monroe said she recognizes the fact that massive staffing challenges have led to virtual days, but she says her daughter, an AAPS student, still doesn’t approve of virtual days.

“Even if it’s just one virtual day every few weeks, she would prefer to be in school,” said Monroe. “To me, public school is in-person school. Children’s brains are not designed to sit in-front of a screen for seven hours, they were meant to be talking, moving, and interacting. The virtual school day is not the same for me.”

With the board recess now planned to last an entire week, as opposed to the 15 minutes originally stated by Trustee Baskett, parents are saying they felt they were within their rights to not wear masks.

“I wouldn’t be here today if people had responded to my emails,” said Chanel, who was one of the two original attendants who refused to mask. “I have flooded the school board with emails, questions, and concerns. I never got any type of response from anyone. As soon as I walked in here today, I was told the cops were going to be called on me. If my child has to go to school, I don’t want him to wear a mask. What kind of parent would I be if I told my son ‘put on a mask’?”

The board will be in recess until next week. The location of next week’s meeting has not been announced.