After months of Michigan school mask protests, anti-anti-maskers mobilize
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With roughly two weeks before classes start at Grosse Pointe Public Schools, Beth Bright Wood is rushing to make decisions on what to do next for her severely asthmatic 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
The school district currently is not requiring masks for the upcoming school year, and Bright Wood is, for now, planning to unenroll her daughter from kindergarten and have her son learn at home.
“My husband and I have to choose between our children’s health or their education, and that’s not right,” she told Bridge Michigan.
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For months, across Michigan and much of the country, people opposed to mask mandates have dominated the news with loud protests at school board meetings, as districts wrestle with decisions on face masks.
Bright Wood is among parents who favor school mask mandates who are organizing rallies, issuing news releases and peppering school leaders to make sure their voices are also being heard amid a cacophony of anti-mask protests.
One pro-mask rally was held Wednesday outside the Macomb County Health Department, just miles and a few hours away from an anti-mask protest at the Oakland County Health Division.
“Seeing the ‘unmask-our-children’ parents get really vocal at the school board meetings — I think a lot of us (thought) now we need to start speaking up, too,” said Emily Mellits, the mother of a first- and third-grader in Romeo Community Schools in Macomb County.
“They think they are the majority and quite frankly they might not be,” Mellits said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued guidance strongly recommending the use of face masks in Michigan schools, but there is not a statewide mandate in place at this time. That means the decision to require masks or make them optional this upcoming school year falls on individual school districts or county health officials.
Parents who criticize mask mandates have raised a number of concerns, from arguing that parents should have the freedom to decide if their children wear facial coverings, to masks interfere with students’ educational and social development. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has questioned the science behind the effectiveness of masks to protect against COVID in schools, and cited studies indicating the virus is no more harmful to children than the flu.
But with the delta variant continuing to fuel a rise in COVID-19 cases, and children under the age of 12 still not eligible for vaccines, pro-mask parents say they are tired of ceding the public square to anti-mask families.
Parents push mask mandates
Pro-mask parent groups have formed in Kent, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, with the groups collaborating on a recent joint news release urging school mask mandates. Macomb County Parents for Safe in Person School, a group of over 1,000 members, is using petitions, emails and phone calls to get the attention of school boards and superintendents.
Those efforts have at times flown under the radar. The same safety concerns that make these parents want school mask mandates have made some hesitant to mix it up with anti-mask parents at school board meetings.
“We aren’t really even provided a safe space for the board meetings where we are protected,” Mellits said. “I think that is one issue that is preventing some of the pro-mask families from going to the board meetings because what’s happening at the board meetings is exactly what we are trying to prevent — a room full of unmasked people.”
She added: “A lot of us feel we can be just as effective through email and phone calls to the board and to the superintendent, (and) that those words have just as much power as they do to a two-minute session of public commentary at a board meeting.”
Mellits told Bridge Michigan the Macomb County parents group’s rally outside the county health department was meant to encourage officials to issue a countywide school mask mandate, just as Oakland County health officials did Tuesday.
“We want to continue to let the health department and the Macomb Intermediate School District know that we are out there (and) we want this mandate in place,” Mellits said. “This is about protecting the kids, but this is really also about protecting our community.”
Sierra Cameron, CEO of the Michigan Chapter American Academy of Pediatrics, said she was relieved to learn her children’s school district, Lansing Public School District, was implementing a mask mandate for the upcoming school year. The Michigan Chapter American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending schools implement universal masking.
“I think it is incredibly important that children are masking, that we are social distancing (and) that we are implementing all these safety measures that have been recommended,” Cameron said. “As children go back to school, without the mask wearing (and) without these measures in place, I’m certain that we will see COVID cases in schools.”
For Nicole Kessler with Oakland County Parents for Safe In Person School, the group achieved exactly what they were hoping for.
The Oakland County Health Division announced Tuesday that everyone in elementary, middle and high schools as well as vocational schools in the county will be required to wear face coverings regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. That edict will remain in effect until 14 days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determine COVID spread in the county is “moderate” or lower. Currently, the CDC considers COVID spread in Oakland County to be “high.”
“I don’t even have words to tell you how relieved I am, especially for the parents who were in districts that weren’t mandating masks,” Kessler said. “There were people who finally got to have a good night's rest last night and I am grateful for that.”
The group now plans to partner with groups in Wayne and Macomb that are advocating for mask mandates in their counties, as well as continuing to push for a statewide mandate.
As of Tuesday, about 46 percent of the state’s students attend a school district or are in a county that has implemented a mask mandate.
“We just got started,” said Mellits, of the Macomb group. “There’s definitely momentum here (and) there’s definitely a desire to do what’s best for our kids and our communities.”
“Nobody loves wearing a mask, but if it means that we prolong or completely avoid going into quarantine or full shut down then let’s do that. We can’t afford any more learning loss.”
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