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Michigan GOP school board members lose vote to discourage masks in class

The Michigan Board of Education heard hours of emotional testimony Tuesday about masks in schools.

Aug. 18: State’s top doc to Whitmer: School mask mandate would reduce COVID

A Republican effort to dissuade Michigan schools from requiring masks, COVID testing and quarantining of unvaccinated students backfired Tuesday when Democrats instead adopted language that supports a district’s right to impose such mandates.         

The vote on the non-binding resolution followed indignation, tears and three hours of public comment — mostly against mask mandates.

The Michigan Board of Education members’ passion for the issue did not match their authority, however.

“We have no more ability to impose a mask mandate than to prohibit a mask mandate at the state board or the state department,” Superintendent Michael F. Rice said.

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Republican board member Nikki Snyder of Dexter, who opposes mask and vaccine mandates, said non-binding resolutions still matter.

“We consistently discuss issues that we don’t have the authority to write policy or legislation (on), but our statements matter,” she said. “They make a difference.” 

The board voted 6-2 along party lines to replace Republican Tom McMillin’s proposed ban on mask mandates with a statement supporting local districts’ “ability to make scientifically informed decisions including mask mandates.”

On the same party-line vote, the board rejected two other McMillin resolutions: One would have discouraged schools from penalizing, segregating, or quarantining unvaccinated students. The other would have urged school districts to stop COVID testing.

The vote comes days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and her health department urged — but did not require — K-12 schools to mandate masks in schools, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. That put the onus on the emotional issue on the state's 891 traditional school districts and charter schools. Some, like Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, will require masks for the beginning of the year, but many districts are making them optional.

During debate Tuesday at the state school board, Snyder, a registered nurse, cried as she said she distrusts the federal government’s ability to regulate vaccines because, she said, a drug she took during pregnancy caused birth defects in her children.

Dozens of parents turned up for the board meeting — mostly virtually— to comment on mask and vaccine mandates. Nearly all opposed them. 

Among their arguments: Masks are uncomfortable. They create a false sense of protection from disease. They create an irrational fear of germs. They make it difficult for children speaking English as a second language. They inhibit social interaction. Wearing them should be a personal choice.  

One mother from Grand Blanc said masks exacerbate her daughter’s social anxiety.

“She doesn’t know how to deal with people because she can’t see them. She doesn’t know what they’re thinking and feeling,” she told the board over speakerphone.

Board officials were unable to provide full names for commenters who participated remotely.

Another mother, from Rochester Hills, said she supports mask mandates.

 “The negative effects of (the more contagious Delta variant) on our children far outweigh any inconvenience of wearing a mask, and masks, we know, work better when everyone wears them,” she said. “One parent choosing not to have their child wear a mask means my child is less protected.”

The debate over mask mandates has been raging across the country. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is mandating them. In Florida, Democratic mayors are at odds with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis who threatened to withhold funding from districts that mandate masks. New York City and Denver are requiring masks in schools. And places like Tennessee are implementing a patchwork of policies.  

McMillin, of Oakland Township, said almost everyone he’s talked with believes it’s abusive to require children to wear masks all day.

People are “rising up all across the state. They want to be heard. This is child abuse, what’s being done to their children, and this is serious,” he said. 

Democrat board member Pamela Pugh, who has a background in public health, bristled.

“If masks are child abuse then Halloween masks are child abuse,” said Pugh, of Saginaw. “Let’s not get into saying that masks are child abuse.” 

Later, Pugh accused Snyder and McMillin of supporting policies that jeopardize lives.

“Our children need to wear masks, not only to protect themselves but to protect others,” she said. “You want to take the protection they have away? You’re killing our children. That’s on you.”

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