Many Michigan schools are open for in-person learning.
But even those schools look very different from normal. There are a host of state requirements schools must comply with to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But one private Christian school is defying some of those safety mandates. And a former teacher said he was fired after he pushed back.
A music teacher’s concerns
This was supposed to be Nathan Smith’s fourth year teaching music at Oakdale Academy. The school re-opened to students last week.
Smith said his three years there had been “excellent.” He was only teaching part-time, but he’d been given more classes and more responsibilities each year.
“I was finally seeing the fruition of my years of work, with the largest band that I’d ever had,” Smith said.
Oakdale is a small, private, K-12 school in Oakland County’s Waterford Township. The school offers what it calls a classical Christian education to around 200 students.
Smith said the more he learned about how the school planned to re-open, the more concerned he became. He felt the school was violating state safety mandates meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Smith said he brought those concerns up with Oakdale’s headmaster, David Stanton. But Smith didn’t get the response he hoped for.
“He made it very clear that he would rather close the school’s doors than open with too many restrictions,” Smith said.
Smith had several major concerns about Oakdale’s re-opening plan. The first and biggest one revolved around masks.
The Michigan Safe Schools re-opening roadmap outlines a series of safety requirements and recommendations for each phase of the state’s re-opening. They apply to both public and private schools.
Michigan is currently in phase four. Masks are required for students in sixth grade and above at all times. For grades five and younger, masks are required in all common areas.
But Oakdale has made mask-wearing voluntary. It asked parents to sign a liability waiver and a “facial coverings exemption.” That exemption notes that while wearing facial coverings in indoor public spaces is now the law via executive order, “the Governor’s actions are being challenged in court.” It also quotes sources such as the American Academy for Pediatrics saying “the use of masks may impede the educational process and/or be uncomfortable for adults and children.”
Headmaster David Stanton did not respond to several requests for an interview. But he did post videos about the school’s re-opening plans in a YouTube video. The video has since been removed.
In the video, Stanton called masks one of the most divisive issues not just in the country, but “within Christianity today.”
“I don’t want divisiveness here. I do not want to allow our enemy Satan to gain a foothold, not even a toehold, in this school,” Stanton said.
“No one in this school will be judged for wearing a mask, and no one in the school will be judged for not wearing a mask. We cannot allow divisiveness to reign to that end. We cannot allow a debate about science to reign.”
Another of Smith’s concerns was plans for student group gatherings. The Safe Schools roadmap prohibits indoor assemblies that bring together students from more than one classroom. Large-scale assemblies of more than 50 students are suspended.
But Stanton said Oakdale will continue to hold all-school student gatherings.
“Our opening ceremonies, our lunches, and our chapels…our intention is to continue with those,” Smith said. “They are critical to who we are, and what we do.”
“It seemed like they wanted to take a political stance”
Smith said he voiced his concerns to Stanton repeatedly. But each time, he was told the issue was not up for discussion.
Finally, after some back and forth, Smith was told that if he didn’t want to work under what he felt were unsafe conditions he could resign. He refused. On August 20, he was notified by e-mail that Stanton was exercising the “at-will” portion of his contract. In other words, he was fired.
Smith was crushed. He said that as a small private school, Oakdale could have made adjustments and done things safely.
“I'm just appalled that instead of instead of being able to brag about how good of a job we're doing, we're just trying to pretend like everything's normal,” Smith said. “It seemed like they wanted to take a political stance against that, and that the students were going to pay the price.”
Smith has filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration. It’s investigating the school.
A spokesperson for the Oakland County Health Department says it’s reached out to Oakdale to offer the school guidance. Waterford Township Police have also been notified. It’s not clear what either agency can or will do beyond that.
Smith said he’s sorry things turned out to this way, but he doesn’t regret doing what he did.
“I was not surprised that I got fired for not wanting to work in unsafe conditions,” he said. “I felt like I was morally obligated to at least take a stand.”
At this point, Smith’s hope is that taking that stand makes some kind of difference for his former students and their families.