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One Michigan mom rejoices, another worries as school mask mandates lift

Kessler and Nelson
The Kessler and Nelson families both have school-age children who, starting Feb. 28, will no longer be forced to mask at school. For some families, that’s cause for celebration; for others, trepidation. (Courtesy photos)

Nicole Kessler will admit it: She’s anxious.

Uncertain, really, as the clock ticks towards a mask-free school for her 10-year-old son, Elijah — an outgoing kid who loves Minecraft, is learning the alto saxophone  and favors the backstroke on the local swim team.

Will he be safe without the mask he’s grown used to? Will Birmingham Public Schools protect him from being bullied if he keeps wearing one? What if COVID rages on?

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“I’m really hopeful and happy that the numbers are going down, and I do trust our public health leaders to make good, science-based decisions,” said Kessler of the recent decision by Oakland County health officials to lift a school mask mandate at month’s end.  

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“But I worry,” she said.

“As much as I would like to get back to normal, there's a virus that's out of our control,” said Kessler, 46, an attorney who said she quit her job to stay home during the pandemic. “We can try to ignore it, but there will be huge repercussions if we do.”

Not so far away, another Oakland County mom is celebrating the end of mandates. 

Kindsey Nelson sees the expiring order as another positive step in the  return to normal, one that’s filled with possibilities, not anxiety. 

Will her son learn better when he can see his teachers’ faces? Will making masks optional help her children make new friends? And help another child's asthma symptoms improve? 

Her ninth-grade son, Luke, who loves video games and sports, told her that masks made it harder to branch out and talk to people he isn’t already close to in the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools. 

Nelson, 40, a personal trainer, is “definitely ready” for the change. 

“I feed off of the kids, like my son or his friends or my friends’ kids. They all seem really excited about just getting back to what would be more normal for them since they haven't really had that in a while — seeing faces, the smiles, being able to interact and not feel like they're so closed off.” 

After two years of off-and-on restrictions amid a raging virus, these are the final days of county-level mask mandates in Michigan. Schools can still dictate mandates on their own, though few are expected to do so. Far more likely: countless masks will remain stuffed inside backpacks or classroom cubbies, if they are brought to school at all. 

And in a state of 10 million, there are plenty of parents like Nicole Kessler, cautiously optimistic about reduced COVID-19 numbers but not quite ready to accept that the pandemic is through with us. 

And there are plenty of others like Kindsey Nelson, frustrated by school policies they say fail to adequately consider the emotional and physical toll rigid restrictions have placed on young children.   

Masks as barriers against COVID 

In the hours after Oakland County health officials announced mask orders would soon end, Nicole and Jeff Kessler sat down at the dinner table at their Beverly Hills home with carry-out Italian food. They discussed the pending mask change, and they decided to let their son Elijah decide.

“He’s a smart, empathetic kid,” Nicole Kessler said.

Elijah told his parents he’ll continue masking even after the mandate expires. How long that will last — his mom is not sure.

But Elijah’s stubborn streak — the one in which he insists he can, in fact, wear tennis shoes in the snow — might be protective if other kids decide to go without masks. 

“If there’s something that he wants to argue about,” his mother said, “he’s relentless.”

The side effects of masking

In the first year of the pandemic, Kindsey Nelson and her husband, Matthew, embraced masks: They bought their children masks with fun designs including University of Michigan gear since her three kids ─ Luke, 14, Lucy, 12, Micah, 10 ─ are huge fans. 

Then, in February of last year, Micah, who has asthma, was wheezing at church. Nelson didn’t have his inhaler so they left and went home to get it. She said that was the first time she began to wonder if the constant masking had made his asthma worse. 

Meanwhile, her son Luke, the ninth-grader, complained of headaches and shortness of breath.  

Studies show masking is one of several tools that include vaccination and physical distancing that can help reduce the spread of infectious disease, including COVID-19; they help reduce an infected wearer’s chances of spreading the virus and a healthy mask wearer’s chances of contracting it.

But Nelson also found a review by several German scientists of previous mask research. In it, scientists framed masks as “a kind of psychological support,” associating masks with headaches, difficulty concentrating, difficulty breathing and anxiety. 

Nelson said her sixth-grader Lucy had more difficulty focusing in class this fall. She complained of feeling lightheaded at the same point each day. Her mom noticed her grades were slipping, too. 

Lucy received a mask exemption from her doctor. But with the constant reminders from a teacher that masks helped keep people safe, Lucy became worried she was spreading the virus. And her mother said older students began to single her out. 

“She ended up being the only kid in the class without the mask on,” Nelson said. “And she's in middle school and so she wanted to fit in and so she went back to trying to wear her mask. But all these (physical) troubles would sort of come back.”

Nelson has homeschooled Lucy since January. She said teachers and the school principal were supportive and told Lucy she is welcome back at any time. 

“I really think some people can handle the masks way better than others, 100 percent, I still will stand by that,” Nelson said.

Nelson is a member of a parent group, Walled Lake Citizens for Parental Rights, which has challenged the mask mandate. But she said she “would not classify myself as an anti-masker.” 

She said her children’s struggles underscored the need to have more of a voice in their schooling. 

“I really think it should be up to the individual’s choice,” she said. “And after going through this with my kids, that's just how I feel. I feel like those issues supersede the risk of getting the virus in kids.”

“Two years into this now, I feel like I have a better understanding of how it relates to us, to my family… the social, emotional, mental health of my kids is suffering more than the risk of getting an illness.”

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Back in Beverly Hills, Nicole Kessler is also thinking about the toll of the past few years. She said the strife of the pandemic has at times made some parents forget just how much they have in common.

“You know, we don't talk about it enough,” Kessler said, referring to policies that have grown up around a deadly virus.

“This is not what any of us — no matter how you feel about being masks — envisioned raising our children.

“And I think we're all disappointed.”

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