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Q & A: Small-town Michigan superintendent tells why he is mandating masks

Eaton Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bill DeFrance said he’s received “nasty and personal” responses from some parents upset that he is requiring all students and staff to wear masks at the beginning of the school year, regardless of vaccination status.

Sept. 8: Michigan: Masked or vaxxed students more likely to avoid COVID quarantine
Sept. 2: Majority of Michigan students must now mask up, as Ingham, Washtenaw add rules

Aug. 30: Which Michigan school COVID measures work? We asked scientists
Aug. 27:
 Six northern Michigan counties join Wayne with newest school mask mandates

The calls and emails started soon after Eaton Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bill DeFrance sent the email the morning of Aug. 16.

When school resumes Aug. 30, the letter said, students would be required to wear face masks in school and on buses.

It was a tough decision DeFrance knew would divide the community, and he, the district school board and a team of confidants he relies on for advice had waited as long as they could before making the decision. In the end, DeFrance said, COVID-19 trends were heading in the wrong direction. 

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The reaction was quick, loud and “extreme,” DeFrance said. He expects more of the same at the first school board meeting since he issued the mandate, which is this Wednesday.

The state “strongly recommends” masks be worn in schools, and last  Wednesday, Michigan’s chief medical officer, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said she’d recommended to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that a statewide school mask mandate would decrease COVID infections among the state’s children.

Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) have stopped short of issuing a school mask mandate, however, as they had during the 2020-21 school year, leaving county health departments and about 900 superintendents in local public school districts and charter schools to make a decision balancing health, evolving research on virus transmission, particularly in schools, infection levels in their community and politics.

Some school districts are mandating masks, while others are making them optional.

Eaton Rapids Public Schools is based in the 5,000-person central Michigan town for which it’s named, and draws students from the surrounding countryside. It is in the heart of a county that split its vote between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and DeFrance said the community appears equally divided on masks in schools.

DeFrance spoke with Bridge Michigan about how he reached his decision, the reaction in his community and his hopes for the school year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: Your letter to parents says that masks will be required inside school buildings regardless of vaccination status. Masks are required on buses, and are optional at outdoor sporting events. How did you make that decision?

The (recent COVID-19) numbers in Eaton County are above the state average.... About 90 percent of our teachers are vaccinated, (but) among students (age 12 and up who are eligible for vaccinations), we’re only at 25 percent vaccination. And half our students (who are under age 12) aren’t eligible (for vaccines).

Then on Friday (Aug. 13), the MDHHS memo came out (strongly recommending face masks in schools).

I polled my board members and talked to (county) health officials and a gentleman who works for me, a retired principal, who helps with COVID. There’s a group of 10 or 12 people I talked to, and there was strong support (for a mask mandate).

Bridge: What are other school districts near you doing?

About half have (mandated) masks, the others are optional.

Bridge: You helped write a letter from superintendents to the governor asking that her administration make a decision about face masks rather than leave it to superintendents. Why?

I do not have the same scientific skills as some people who work there (in the state health department). But if somebody else is uncomfortable making a decision, if I have a reasonable support group around me who believe the same way, I don’t have a problem making that decision.

Bridge: What’s been the reaction in your community?

Extremes. About half have been thank you’s, saying it takes a little bit of guts to do it. Some of them were pretty nasty and pretty personal, as nasty as I’ve seen, other than maybe a snow day.

I knew the reaction would be divisive. But the piece that has played in my mind is: this COVID-19 variant is more transmissible. I have about 300 employees and 2,000-some students, and I have to think about their safety.

Bridge: Have families commented on the decision at a school board meeting?

That will happen at the next board meeting, Aug. 25. Though I expect there will be more discussion of critical race theory.

Bridge: What do you tell parents who are upset about the mask mandate?

In some cases, they’re not interested in my opinion, they just rant and hang up. In other cases, if they say ‘how did you make that decision,’ I send them a copy of the (state health department) guidance.

Kids are resilient. We’re going back to five days a week (of in-person learning), and athletics are back and spectator attendance. Other than the fact we’re going to have a series of health protocols to minimize the health risks, I think the kids are going to have a great year.

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