Republicans advance bills to bar Michigan school mask mandates
LANSING — A tense clash over school masking and COVID-19 testing policies continued Tuesday at the Michigan Capitol, where a Republican-led Senate panel advanced bills to bar local mandates after a Democratic lawmaker walked out in frustration.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has encouraged school masking and is likely to veto the legislation should it reach her desk, but Senate Education Committee Chair Lana Theis said she wants to show the governor “what the citizens of Michigan are concerned about.”
Parents opposed to masks, testing and COVID-19 vaccines testified in support of the four-bill package spearheaded by Theis, R-Brighton, who argued various safety mandates had contributed to “high anxiety and suicidal tendencies” among K-12 students.
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“Access to a free public education is a guaranteed right in our state constitution, and a child should never be denied access to their constitutional rights over government policy,” Theis said before the bills advanced in a 4-1 party-line vote.
Democratic Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, did not vote on the bills Tuesday after walking out of the committee hearing during a heated exchange between two colleagues.
In a text message to Bridge Michigan, Geiss cited "sheer frustration with people working in government railing against government, hysterically bringing up unrelated subject matter, and being entirely hypocritical when it comes to addressing the public health strategies during a continuing highly contagious airborne virus when our entire elementary school population cannot get vaccinated."
"This is pure insanity," Geiss added, calling the hearing a “farce.”
The legislation, now heading to the full Michigan Senate, would:
- Prohibit the state or local health departments for adopting emergency orders to mandate vaccines, face masks or testing in Michigan schools
- Require districts with mask mandates to allow parents or 18-year-old students to request a waiver for any reason. As written, the school would not even need to approve the waiver. If requested by a parent, the district could not require a student to wear a mask.
- Prohibit districts from requiring testing of asymptomatic students
- Prohibit school districts "discriminating" against students who have not had a vaccine by treating them differently than vaccinated students, such as requiring them to wear face masks.
- Prohibit school districts from mandating students receive an "emergency use authorization" vaccine to attend school, ride a bus or participate in sports or other extra curricular activities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August gave full approval for individuals 16 years and older to use the Pfizer vaccine, but all available vaccines are still under emergency use status for individuals between 12 and 15 years old.
- Prohibit districts from requiring masks or COVID-19 testing to attend school board meetings
As of early September, 60 percent of Michigan students are required to mask up inside school buildings, either through mandates issued by individual school districts or local health departments.
Eight of the nine most populous counties in the state are requiring face masks in school buildings. Most mandate masks for all students. Some only require face coverings for elementary students, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. All Michigan students must wear masks on school buses.
But “to the best of my knowledge, no schools in the state have attempted or even formally discussed mandating vaccines for their students,” said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, which opposes the bills.
“We believe (the bills) are bad policy in that they severely limit a local school district’s ability to protect the safety and welfare of their staff and students,” Spadafore said.
The Whitmer administration has not issued any statewide orders for the new school year but has recommended local masking and quarantine rules to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Supporters say mask mandates will help schools avoid closures and a return to remote learning, but public meetings over local policies have been marked by intense opposition from some parents, including rancor that has led at least one school board president to resign.
Last week in Washtenaw County, unmasked students pressed their way into Manchester High School after encouragement from their parents.
Nancy Rotarius of Dansville attended Tuesday’s Senate Committee meeting with her 13-year-old son Alan, a middle school student who wore a “we refuse to be muzzled” t-shirt.
Rotarius told Bridge Michigan she made a “tough decision” to pull her son out of sports last year because she did not want him to submit to statewide testing rules, fearing he could end up quarantined and out of school.
Now, Ingham County has required masking, and Rotarius said she is concerned about “the emotional toll” that pandemic learning will continue to have on her middle school son.
“It’s my son, and I should have the opportunity to make the choice for him both in vaccinations and for masking,” she said. “I’ve had it. I’m just so tired as a mom, and I know my son is tired.”
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