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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

A northern Michigan school was ordered to mandate masks. 100 students left.

Benzie Central Junior/Senior High
About 100 students have left Benzie Central schools, including Benzie Central Junior/Senior High shown here, since a mask mandate was announced in late August. (Courtesy photo)

Oct. 22: They disagreed, but both caught hell. Welcome to Michigan’s mask mandate wars
Oct. 4: COVID outbreaks in Michigan schools already 8 times higher than last year

Sept. 30: Science says school masks work. Public opinion is another issue in Michigan
Sept. 30: Michigan counties dump mask rules for thousands of pupils amid budget mess

Benzie Central Schools needs a traffic signal for all the students who enrolled and left the rural west Michigan district in recent months.

This summer, about 30 students from outside the district’s borders signed up to attend what was then a mask-optional district, fleeing neighboring schools that had announced mask mandates for this fall.

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But after the Benzie-Leelanau Health District imposed a mask requirement for all schools in those two counties in late August, just a week before schools reopened, those same 30 students pulled out of Benzie Central, according to Superintendent Amiee Erfourth. An additional 70 students who live in the district have since left the school system because of the mask mandate, many going to schools where masks are still optional.

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In the span of a few weeks, the district with about 1,300 students lost about 100 children from families who didn’t want their kids to wear masks in classrooms, Erfourth told Bridge Michigan.

“Some families who felt really strongly (about not wearing face masks) have chosen other schools,” Erfourth acknowledged. “Some have chosen to homeschool.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declined to enact statewide face-mask policies to protect against COVID this school year, leaving that decision to local health authorities and school districts. That resulted in a hodgepodge of local mask policies this fall, leading some families who are passionate on the issue to shop around for schools that match their views.

Just how widespread school shopping for favorable mask policies is in Michigan isn’t yet known. The state’s official student count day — when district enrollment numbers determine the amount of state funding — is Oct. 6. Data from that count day won’t be compiled until later this fall.

Families’ ability to relocate children is aided by Michigan’s school-of-choice policy, which makes it easy and relatively common for students to move between districts, which many do for a variety of reasons.

But conversations this month with local school leaders indicate many districts are seeing at least a few families enroll or pull out of classes as they flee or seek mask mandates.

The impact of school swapping goes far beyond pandemic politics. Switching schools can have a negative impact on the education of children, and can destabilize school budgets. One example: Benzie Central’s loss of 100 students because of a mask mandate means the loss of more than $800,000 in state per-student funding in this school year alone, a significant loss for a district with a $14 million budget.

At least 257 of the state’s 533 traditional school districts, and about 791,000 students — representing 63 percent of all public school students in Michigan — now have mask mandates. Some of those districts imposed face coverings on their own, while others are following mask mandates issued by local health officials.

You can find the mask policy of your school here.

Schools that do not have face-mask requirements for students are “mask-optional.” While school and health officials in “optional” districts generally encourage students to wear masks in school, most don’t, with 10 percent or less of students wearing masks in some districts.

That can lead to wide gaps in masking between sometimes neighboring school districts that can encourage families passionate on the issue to choose schools based on mask policies.

Webberville Community Schools, in Ingham County, is under a mask mandate imposed by the local health department. But the district borders Livingston County, where schools are mask-optional. Webberville Superintendent Andrew Smith told Bridge Michigan his district has lost students from families who opposed having their children wear masks in schools.

Smith didn’t offer a specific number of students who’ve left, but cited a current situation in which a family with three children in Webberville schools is requesting a school of choice transfer to a mask-optional district.

“If our district approved this transfer and funding release, it would cost our district approximately $8,200 per student, per year,” Smith said. “If these students didn't return to our district, over the course of their K-12 education, it would cost our district an estimated $262,000 because of these lost revenues. Please keep in mind, this is only for 3 students.”

If the district doesn’t approve the transfer, “It puts us in conflict with parents and students that we have otherwise had a very positive relationship with for years,” Smith said

“I understand the mandates and the laws, but … it’s just frustrating,” Smith said. “It’s a divisive issue, so you get people on both sides of it.”

While Webberville and Benzie Central have lost students because of their mask mandate, Howell Public Schools has lost some students because of its lack of a mask requirement. Katie Deck is a parent who until recently had a first-grader in mask-optional Howell. Though she and her daughter loved their teacher, Deck pulled her daughter out of Howell recently and enrolled her in Whitmore Lake Public Schools, which has a mask mandate.

A key reason for the switch was the belief her daughter would be safer if all her classmates wore masks, Deck said.

“I know of at least six families who’ve moved their kids out” of Howell to schools with mask mandates,” Deck said. “Some went to Dexter (Community Schools), some to Whitmore Lake. There’s a private school here (in Livingston County) that requires masks.”

Lawyers, mandates and money

In August, the Benzie Central school board initially voted 5-2 to ignore the local health department’s mask mandate.

“We had a lot of feedback from the community to want choice,” Superintendent Erfourth told Bridge Michigan.

However, the board’s lawyer advised that the district was likely to lose in court if they rejected the health order; the health department could close the district’s school buildings if the mask mandate wasn’t enforced. A week after their initial vote, the board backed down and voted 4-3 to follow the mask requirement.

That’s when students began pulling out of the district, Erfourth said. Benzie Central had already assumed it would have a small decline in enrollment when it set its yearly budget, so the departure of students after the mandate won’t cripple the district, though an elementary teacher position was eliminated.

Trying to staunch student departures, Benzie Central this week reversed its mask mandate for one building, Betsie Valley Elementary, which is located just across the Benzie County line in Manistee County, which does not have a mask mandate. Parents of elementary students who want to stay in the district but not have their children wear masks can transfer to Betsie Valley.

“We are opening enrollment,” Erfourth said. “We for sure have had one family switch there, and another family with two kids move from there (to a mask-mandate school).

“The board feels very strongly about giving families a choice,” Erfourth said.

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