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Michigan Senate OKs longshot bills to stop student COVID mandates

kids in masks in a classroom
The Republican-passed Senate bills blocking mask and vaccine mandates must now pass the GOP-controlled House before their likely veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Shutterstock)

LANSING—Mandates for masks, vaccinations, and COVID testing for students would be restricted under Republican legislation the Michigan Senate approved Tuesday as it seeks to sharply limit school coronavirus safety protocols.

The bills passed 19-15 along party lines in the GOP-led chamber. They now head to the Republican-controlled House but stand little chance of being signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

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Indeed, passage came on the same day Whitmer ordered her administration to expedite the acquisition and distribution of Pfizer BioNTech pediatric coronavirus vaccines for children as young as five. The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday began deliberating whether to authorize the vaccine for children 5 to 11, with federal approval expected as soon as next week.

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“This is a game-changer for our kids that will protect them as they continue to learn in-person in the classroom this school year, participate in extracurricular activities, or see friends and family this holiday season,” Whitmer said in a written statement. “Parents should sign up to protect their kids.”

Whitmer, who previously blocked a separate effort to restrict mask and vaccine rules, is likely to veto the Senate bills if they reach her desk. During the current school year, Whitmer has declined to impose statewide COVID mandates, leaving those decisions to local school districts and public health authorities. Her spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Republicans say vaccines, masks, and testing are fine for parents who want them for their children but schools and state and local health departments shouldn’t have the authority to require them.

“We have seen time and time again parents stepping up on behalf of their own children to make their own decisions on behalf of their kids and see nothing but the government intrude on them and stand in their way,” said Sen. Tom Barrett, a Potterville Republican who was among the sponsors of the legislation.

One of the bills would prohibit schools from requiring students to get vaccines approved with emergency use authorizations, a designation the Federal Drug Administration gives to provide access to critical medical products. Currently, no COVID vaccine is fully approved for children under 15. The Pfizer vaccine is fully approved for people over 15 and has emergency use authorization for administration to children ages 12-15.

Another bill would require schools with mask mandates to allow parents and students to opt out of wearing them. It also would prohibit mandatory testing of asymptomatic students. The Detroit Public Schools Community District is testing asymptomatic students weekly. Detroit parents can opt their children out, and about half have, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said.

The third and fourth bills would prohibit state and local health officials from enforcing rules that require face masks, emergency-use vaccines, or COVID testing of asymptomatic students as a condition of attending class or participating in school functions.

The Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators opposed the legislation.

“Tying the hands of school district and health officials with statewide policy is not productive or what we need at this time,” said Executive Director Tina Kerr. “What we need is to focus on ensuring that district leaders have the ability to make decisions in consultation with health experts that are in the best interest of the health and safety of their staff and students.”

Republican Sen. Lana Theis of Brighton, who leads the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness, spoke in favor of the bills and accused Democrats of creating division.

“Forcing vaccines and mask mandates upon our citizens has driven us further apart,” she said in a speech on the Senate floor. Such mandates, she said, “ignore natural immunity, ignore religious and conscientious objections, and fail to account for individual health concerns.”

Democrats said parents already can opt out of COVID protocols for those reasons.

But Theis said the legislation passed Tuesday goes beyond allowing exemptions. It also prevents schools from treating students differently based on vaccination status or mask use, she said.

Senate Democrats criticized the bills but didn’t have the votes to defeat them.

“We’re almost two years into this pandemic caused by this deadly virus. There is much we still don’t know, but we do know this: Vaccines and masks slow the spread of COVID,” said Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills.

“We’re talking about real people suffering,” she said. “Stop perpetuating this crisis. Stop. People are believing what you’re telling them. People are drinking your Kool-Aid. These bills are dangerous.

Although the bills are unlikely to be signed into law, it’s a mistake to ignore Republicans’ effort to downplay the seriousness of COVID, said Sen. Kevin Hertel, a St. Clair Shores Democrat.

“It’s easy to dismiss these bills as just political rhetoric and nonsense, and just ignore it and let it go. … We have reached a point well beyond that, where this body is actually putting Michigan citizens in danger,” Hertel said in a floor speech. “This body — the official record of the Michigan Senate — is being used to espouse things that are absolutely false and dangerous.”

Sixty-seven percent of Michigan residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which tracks COVID cases, has found that school districts without mask mandates have seen higher case rates. Mask and vaccine measures are broadly recommended by state and federal health authorities.

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