Angry Up North: scars linger after Michigan school mask mandates end
CHARLEVOIX—Tuesday’s meeting of the Health District of Northwest Michigan board of directors hadn’t started yet, and it was already crowded and overheated. Someone opened a window and a 25-degree breeze swept past about 30 people sitting together wearing facemasks, and wafted toward another group of 30 — mostly on the opposite side of the room — who were maskless.
Until recently, it was unusual for more than a handful of residents to show up to monthly board meetings for the health department that provides services for Emmet, Cheboygan, Otsego and Antrim counties; and rarer still for there to be shouting.
That changed last September when Health Officer Lisa Peacock and her office ordered students and staff at schools in the four counties, along with Leelanau and Benzie counties, to wear face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
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Since then, the normally staid, budget-passing, report-approving meetings have devolved into finger-pointing and bickering. One meeting was so filled with venom over the mask mandate that Peacock said she was afraid to go to the public restroom without an escort.
Twice in meetings after the mandate was issued, some board members tried to fire her, with both measures failing. Two of the eight board members — made up of two county commissioners from each of the four counties — resigned after the September meeting. Two health department administrators quit soon afterward, citing stress caused by the public reaction to the mandate.
By the time of the board’s most recent meeting, on Tuesday, commissioners had expected things to calm down. The mask mandate had been rescinded by Peacock, allowing students in the 39 school districts in the region to attend classes without face coverings starting Feb. 18. And Peacock, who’d spent most of her career as a relatively anonymous civil servant before becoming a public enemy to some of her neighbors in the past six months, had turned in her resignation.
Yet the room was packed.
About half those attending wore face masks — though they were no longer required in public meetings — along with name tags with “I am Lisa” written in black marker. They applauded each other as they took turns during the public comment period praising the departing health officer, a person they considered a victim of misplaced anger surrounding the pandemic and health measures intended to slow its spread.
That didn’t sit well with Jennifer Thompson.
The single mom from Gaylord had spoken out against the school mask mandate and the woman she blamed for it at previous meetings, and though the mandate was gone, her anger lingered.
“You don’t get to be the martyr,” she said when it was her turn to speak, as Peacock listened from a table with other health department officials. “Others suffered, too.
“We are standing up to tyranny,” Thompson said, to the cheers of half the crowd and the tsk-tsks of others. “We are not moving on.”
Northwest Michigan’s mask wars are technically over, but few escaped without scars. A health officer is leaving her dream job under pressure. A parent has lost trust in schools and public officials. And kids used to social distancing in school have to “learn how to hug again.”
What’s happening here in this idyllic Michigan lake region mirrors lingering tensions across much of the state. School mask mandates have been lifted in almost all Michigan communities. But as Thompson’s public comments made clear, the distrust generated over the past six months isn’t as easy to stash away in a kitchen drawer as an N-95 mask.
“Goodbye,” Thompson said to Peacock, “and good riddance.”
‘Why do they hate me?’
A day before the Tuesday meeting, Peacock was in her office at the health department in Charlevoix.
On a table in the office was a faded red scrapbook. There was dust on the binding, and yellowed newspaper clippings inside.
The clippings chronicled the four-county health department’s achievements over the past 90 years. There were black and white photos of health exams at local high schools and polio vaccination clinics in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the department operates clinics in five communities across the region, offering dozens of services from septic system permits to dental exams.
None of it was terribly controversial until COVID-19.
Two years ago, when the pandemic first hit, all students in Michigan were required to wear face masks when they were in school buildings, by a state order issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. But this school year, the Whitmer administration left masking policy to local health departments and school districts. That put the onus — and a target — on public health officials like Peacock and her colleagues across the state.
Peacock wasn’t alone in issuing school mask mandates last September, at the height of the delta variant. Nearly two-in-three public school students (about 900,000 students) were required to wear a mask under orders of local health officials. Those orders largely aligned with guidance from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was also broad legal consensus that school mask mandates were within the bounds of a health department's discretion as the highly contagious infection spread.
Now, as the omicron variant fades, county-level mask mandates are gone, though a handful of individual school districts continue to require masking.
Many of the health officials who issued those mandates were harassed. The Kent County Health Department director was nearly run off the road. A woman in Genesee County faces criminal charges on allegations she made death threats against Health Officer Pamela Hackert. A resident tried to make a citizen’s arrest of the health officer of Barry-Eaton Health Department at a public meeting, where another resident called the female health officer a vulgar four-letter expletive.
Soon after the school mask mandate in northwest Michigan was issued, Peacock’s cell phone was posted on social media, and things got “scary,” she said. One caller, according to Peacock, left a message saying she would “burn in hell” for requiring students to wear masks. A police officer came to her home on Thanksgiving day, after a resident had gone to the police department to file a citizen's arrest against her.
“I love my job. I love public health,” Peacock told Bridge Michigan. “But I’m human. I have a heart. Those things hurt.”
Peacock has been a nurse since 1991, first working in a hospital and later as a school nurse. She opened one of the first school-based health care centers in northern Michigan before joining the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. She’s been in her current position since 2017, avoiding controversy, before the pandemic.
Following the September board meeting, Peacock took a two-week medical leave, saying her nerves were shot from the vitriol directed at her by upset residents.
She wrote a guest commentary in Bridge Michigan in October, railing against health board members who were trying to fire her. (The board attorney had advised members they didn’t have legal authority to rescind the mask order, but they could fire Peacock and appoint someone who would drop it.)
“In my role as a Health Officer, I have a statutory duty to issue such orders as my judgment and conscience dictate, based on reputable science and facts,” Peacock wrote in the commentary. “The purpose of my most recent order is to protect the health of children and school staff, and the community at large, and in my judgment, it is supported by overwhelming, reliable medical evidence.
“I do not ask to be popular, respected, or to have people agree with that order. Everyone is free to express their opinions and argue for change. That can – and should – be done in a decent, honorable, and persuasive way. Yet what I have witnessed recently is neither decent, honorable nor even persuasive.”
Some members of the board tried to fire Peacock in September and again in December, in meetings that continued to be tense and packed. Both attempts failed.
Peacock said she’d gotten along with board members from the various counties in her region before the mask mandate was issued, and she anticipated things would return to normal after the mandate ended last month.
But when she saw a draft agenda for the March meeting included proposed votes that would have cut the health department’s budget by as much as 10 percent (and her salary by 30 percent), Peacock said she realized things weren’t going to get better.
She submitted her resignation Feb. 22, citing a “hostile work environment.”
The board accepted her resignation at the March 1 meeting, by a 5-3 vote. Half the audience clapped when the vote was announced.
“They don’t even know me,” Peacock told Bridge Michigan afterward. “How can they hate me so much?”
‘I don’t trust them’
Jennifer Thompson isn’t shy about telling people what she thinks of Peacock, arguing at Tuesday’s meeting that Peacock had committed “crimes against humanity.”
Thompson, a former sign-language instructor who now owns a craft studio in Gaylord, fist bumped with friends attending the Tuesday meeting, and greeted those she didn’t know with a big smile.
She’s made new friends in the six months since she began fighting the mask mandate, people like her who spend their evenings attending public meetings of school boards, county commissioners and the district health board to rail against COVID policies they see as restricting their freedom.
She has three children who attend Gaylord High School. Two were suspended for short periods of time in September for refusing to wear face masks. Eventually, all three of Thompson’s kids agreed to masking so they could attend classes. None of the family own masks — the teens picked up disposable masks at school each morning and discarded them when classes were over.
“My 18-year-old led a protest (against the mask mandate) at school. They (school officials) threatened with ‘You're not going to be able to play your sports (if you’re suspended),’” Thompson said. “He’s a senior. He's number one in the region in wrestling, so it's a big deal.”
Thompson’s Facebook page is filled with celebratory posts about her children and sharp comments criticizing COVID policies. She couches conversations about the mandate in terms of a mother protecting her children.
“Why should you force my child to wear one, especially if they suffer from anxiety?” she said. “Or if they have a staph infection, you know, things of that nature.”
“I try very much to not be political, OK? I think that that is what makes America great. You know, if you want to be Republican or Democratic, that is your God given right,” Thompson told Bridge Michigan.
“But I'm telling you, when it comes to my kids, and you force things on them that is not (for) the betterment of them, I’m going to call you on the carpet.”
The mask mandate changed Thompson. She rarely attended public meetings prior to September. Now, she never misses them unless they conflict with her son’s wrestling matches.
“I don't trust them (public officials of all stripes) because of this,” Thompson said. “I need to be there to see what they are doing.”
Learning to hug again
Stephen Seelye, superintendent of Pellston Community Schools, said parents tended to be more upset about the school mask requirement than their kids. But he said he views some parents’ actions following the mask mandate not as distrust, but confusion and frustration over the orders. He points to a printout on his desk detailing quarantine guidance for the 456 students in his tiny district in rural Emmet County as an example.
The rules go on for three pages. Some highlights:
For those who are fully vaccinated or had a confirmed COVID case in the past 90 days and are exposed to someone with COVID, there’s no quarantine, but testing is recommended after five days. For those not fully-vaccinated and exposed to a positive COVID case outside of school, there’s a five-day quarantine. But if that same student was exposed at school while wearing a mask, they don’t need to stay home. Unless that exposure is part of a designated COVID cluster/outbreak, in which case the student must stay home for five days.
Then there’s a test-to-stay in school program that applies in some circumstances and not others, and rules for exposure on buses and in sporting events and for students with mask wavers.
“We have to call parents and say, ‘OK, your child was masked with this child who was unmasked, and they were within six feet,’” Seelye said. “But now (the quarantine guidance says) three feet so that changed. So we (used to) say ‘you’re quarantined for 10 days,’ but now it’s five days, and now they can test to come back.
“I'm not complaining. We've learned a lot through this pandemic and the science behind it has changed,” Seelye said. “But you can understand why parents are confused.”
One example: Some high schools in adjacent counties did not have mask mandates this year. That meant Pellston athletes weren’t required to wear masks at games played at the home courts of some rivals, but those same teams had to put on masks when they played at Pellston
Seelye said he’s not suggesting policies such as student quarantines and mask mandates weren’t important for safety. But when talking about parent anger, it’s important to acknowledge the losses families have experienced, he said.
“The frustration that’s out there…we’ve all had loss throughout this,” Seelye said. “I have a young man in my high school who's the greatest kid in the world and he was quarantined five times last year. He’s an athlete and he's active and involved in everything, and he missed 50 days of school last year. That’s missing sports and activities and dances.
“I’ve not had parents mad at me that their kid had to wear a mask. But when you call up a working family that has elementary aged kids and say ‘I’m sorry, but your child's in quarantine for the third time this year,’ and they're running out of sick days (to take at work), that’s hard.”
That constant sense of loss of control has worn down parents during the pandemic, said Aimee Erfourth, superintendent at Benzie Central Public Schools, which was under the same health department-issued mask mandate as Pellston.
In September, Benzie Central lost about 100 students (one-in-13 of its enrollment) to neighboring districts in adjacent counties that didn’t have a mask mandate.
“Most of the families that were really unhappy by the decision by the health department are families that wanted a choice,” Erfourth said. “Four families came back the first day the mandate was lifted.”
In conversations with families in her district, Erfourth said parents were “feeling they were having things done to them.”
Erfourth says she worries about whether trust is broken between schools and some parents, as well as with children.
“These were kids who were told by trusted adults, you have to have this on your face to be safe,” she said. “And now we’re saying take them off. They don’t understand what changed.
“We have to teach them to sit close to each other again, to learn to hug again. I had a student say I will never eat birthday cake again because someone blew out candles. Another student said I can’t believe I ever touched a pencil that someone else has touched without sanitizing it.
“We’ve taken a place that was always a safe place (and made it) feel like maybe it’s not a safe place because of germs,” Erfourth said.
“We like to say kids are resilient, but I feel this has taken a toll on them.”
Will distrust fade?
A soft snow fell across northwest Michigan the morning after Tuesday’s health board meeting, hiding at least temporarily the blackened crust of ice that bordered the roads and sidewalks.
Lisa Peacock said she awoke feeling relieved.
She’d made the one-hour drive west from the meeting in Charlevoix to her home in Traverse City to find her husband waiting with a deluxe pizza. Together, they watched a Detroit Red Wings game (Peacock’s brother is Red Wings Coach Jeff Blashill). “They won in overtime, so it was a good night,” Peacock said.
Still, the scars from the mask wars are never far from her mind. She often looks at social media to see what is being said about her, and it’s usually not kind. She loses her paycheck after she officially leaves in late April.
Still, she said she has no regrets, and has no doubt she helped public safety by imposing the school mask mandate as the virus flared late last summer.
But when she talks about what will happen in the community now that the mandate has been lifted, doubts arise.
“I hope my leaving will allow a fresh start with the (health) board,” she said. “(But) there’s so much hate, it’s frightening. It’s just consumed people.”
That same morning after the health board meeting, Thompson, the mother from Gaylord, was attending a court hearing in a lawsuit filed by parents asking that the mask mandate be lifted. The judge said the case was now moot, since the order had been rescinded by the health department.
After the hearing, Thompson showed no signs of declaring victory and going home.
“Removing Lisa was a huge win for us,” she said. “(But) it doesn’t mean that next week they can’t throw another mask mandate on there. We want to make sure this never happens again.”
Thompson said she plans to keep attending meetings and continuing to speak out.
“When the masks go away, I think a lot of people are going to forget,” she said. “I’m taking time to reflect and think about our next move.”
Meanwhile, in classrooms across the region, students who were required to wear masks now have the option of removing them. Superintendents say only a small minority of children are still wearing masks.
But as with adults in the region, the impact of the mask wars lingers.
“I would love to believe we’re returning to normal,” Benzie Central’s Erfourth said. “I think people generally feel like things are starting to return to a place where they have more control over their choices. But at the end of the day, I think COVID is going to have a longer-lasting impact than just (masks).”
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