‘Kids know we are putting them at risk for political reasons’

As COVID cases in kids rise, parents fight for school mask mandates

By: - August 22, 2021 3:26 am

Marta Johnson and her daughter, Claire, as a baby

When Marta Johnson talks about masks, what she’s really talking about is her daughter’s heart. 

What she’s talking about is her child, Claire, who has congenital heart disease and is now about to enter first grade, undergoing open heart surgery when she was seven days old. About Claire getting pneumonia when she was one month old, about not knowing if she was going to die when she was placed on a ventilator. About how, after her daughter’s lifetime of sickness and resilience, she now faces contracting a severe case of COVID-19 and doesn’t yet have access to the vaccine because she’s under the age of 12 — and the trauma that causes. 

What she’s really talking about is knowing how quickly we enter this world, and how quickly we can leave it. 

“It’s really traumatic to see your kid struggle on a ventilator, to hear they have complications from a ventilator,” said Johnson, who lives in Grand Rapids. “I don’t wish for parents to ever know that fear and that experience. I wish for them to imagine how bad it is and advocate for mandatory masking so we can prevent that as much as possible.”

That concept — reinstating a mask requirement as the faster-spreading Delta variant has caused cases to spike COVID-19 as children return to in-person learning across Michigan — has ignited a firestorm of criticism from Republican lawmakers and GOP leaders in the state. 

That’s despite the fact that medical experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the Michigan Association of Family Physicians, among others, are urging that masks be required in schools. 

It’s really traumatic to see your kid struggle on a ventilator, to hear they have complications from a ventilator. I don’t wish for parents to ever know that fear and that experience. I wish for them to imagine how bad it is and advocate for mandatory masking so we can prevent that as much as possible.

– Marta Johnson, a Grand Rapids parent

But four West Michigan Republican state legislators — state Reps. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Mark Huizenga (R-Walker), Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), and Bryan Posthumus (R-Cannon Twp.) — for example, recently threatened to pull funding from the Kent County Health Department if masks are mandated in schools.

On Friday, the Kent and Ottawa Health Departments jointly announced they would require that masks be worn in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade settings, or locations where students are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“This was a necessary decision as we are seeing rapid increases in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant,” Dr. Adam London, the administrative health officer at the Kent County Health Department, said in a press statement. “It also appears as though this variant may be more likely to  cause serious illness and hospitalization, so we need to take precautions to keep our children  healthy and in school.” 

While some county health departments and school districts are requiring masks, there remains no statewide mandate that masks be used in schools, which parents and educators expressed particular concern over in light of the fact that the Delta variant is increasingly sending more children to the hospital with COVID-19 and children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy health director, said during a Wednesday press conference that she has urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel to implement a statewide mask mandate for schools. 

Last year, the state required masks to be worn in schools. In Whitmer’s 2020 executive order announcing it, she noted that, “it is now crystal clear that COVID-19 can be deadly to younger children, and that children who become infected at school can pass the virus to their parents, leading to community spread.”

Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the DHHS, did not directly respond to the Advance’s question regarding why the department has not issued a mask requirement as the 2021-22 school year starts. She did say in an email that the DHHS “recently strengthened our school guidance to strongly recommend a universal mask mandate in schools along with other CDC-developed prevention strategies that schools and local health departments can use together to reduce the spread of COVID-19, maintain in-person learning and protect people who are not yet fully vaccinated.”

Sutfin also noted that “some local health departments and school districts have already moved forward to require masks in schools; we applaud their efforts and encourage all Michigan districts to follow their lead.”

Several other states have implemented mask requirements for schools this year, including California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington. Washington, D.C. also is mandating masks in schools.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Whitmer office photo

Local control

Leaving these decisions be driven locally, however, has left educators unfairly burdened by the often antagonistic politics surrounding masks, said John Helmholdt, the executive director of communications and external affairs at Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

Helmholdt spoke to Michigan Advance prior to Kent County making its mask announcement and had said GRPS would welcome mask mandates from the state or the county health department. GRPS announced this week it would require everyone in its schools and other buildings to wear a mask.

“The lack of a public health mandate puts all the pressure and all the politics on superintendents and school boards,” Helmholdt said.

Parents interviewed by the Michigan Advance emphasized the lack of a state mask mandate for schools has created deep confusion for families attempting to navigate what has amounted to an educational landscape marred by anxiety, sadness and anger this school year. The absence of a statewide requirement translates to “patchwork vulnerabilities for people who already don’t have great access to children’s emergency care,” Johnson said.

“We need state leaders who will say, ‘Yes, we’ll take the heat on this because it’s literally risking our kids’ lives here,’” Johnson continued, referring to implementing a statewide mask mandate in schools.

Faced with this lack of a statewide policy, districts across the state are, like Grand Rapids, implementing or weighing mask requirements while facing a world in which Michigan Republicans are vehemently fighting such mandates, like the four West Michigan lawmakers. 

There’s also Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who called them the “dumbest thing we could possibly do” and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, who’s married to Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) and recently described mask mandates as “delusional behavior from liberal administrators who deal more in virtue signaling than science and safety.”

“It’s like us versus COVID and the GOP at this point,” Johnson said. 

“Can we call them the COVID party?” Johnson continued. “That sounds pretty frickin’ accurate.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District student at Ronald Brown Academy | Ken Coleman photo

Child COVID cases surge

This maelstrom of anti-mask sentiment is happening as students are poised to return to in-person learning amidst an increase of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, including among children. 

Medical experts, parents and other pro-mask advocates emphasized in interviews with the Advance that this return to school, as well as increase in cases, is occurring when children under the age of 12 do not yet have access to a COVID-19 vaccine. And school-aged children who are able to get a vaccine have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state: 28.9% of individuals between the ages of 12 and 15 are fully vaccinated, as are 38.4% of those between the ages of 16 and 19. 

Nationwide, the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 is hitting record numbers due to the Delta variant. In Michigan, there has been a 19% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among 0 to 9 year olds over the past week, according to DHHS. Among 10 to 19 year olds, there has been an 11% jump in Michigan’s case numbers in the past week, DHHS said. 

And while adults still make up the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 admissions, the number of children being admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 is on the rise, according to the health department. 

“Delta will increase the transmission of the virus between children,” Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, DHHS director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, said during a Wednesday press conference. 

COVID-19 impacts on children, Aug. 18, 2021 | DHHS chart

“Children can be infected with COVID-19, and the proportion of all cases that are made up of children has been increasing in the last month, compared to our cumulative pattern,” Lyon-Callo continued.

Dr. Scott Grant, a pediatrician at the DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, said in an interview with the Michigan Advance that he’s deeply worried to see an influx of children battling COVID-19 at his institution.

“I think the one thing that’s most concerning as a pediatrician with this latest round of COVID illnesses is we’re certainly seeing more kids sick with COVID in the hospital,” Grant said. “For the first six, seven, eight months of the pandemic, it didn’t seem to be affecting kids very much. We weren’t seeing that many young kids requiring to be in the hospital and requiring oxygen. We’re still not seeing a ton of that, but we’re certainly seeing more this time around than we did before.”

Grant also expressed concerns about children under the age of 12 not yet having access to the vaccine — something which researchers have said could potentially happen this fall.

“Many of these young kids going back to school don’t have access to a vaccine that would protect them from severe illness; that’s another piece that’s very concerning,” Grant said.

Dr. Scott Grant

While he is concerned about unvaccinated children, Grant emphasized that students should be able to attend in-person school as long as there are strong COVID-19 mitigation efforts — such as wearing masks and eligible individuals getting vaccines.

“Even before the vaccine was available to anybody, there were some schools in different parts of the country that were open and had universal masking policies; one thing we know from folks who researched those schools is the amount of COVID that existed within the school environment was either the same or less than the amount of COVID spreading in the community,” Grant said. “The schools didn’t make it worse.The masking seemed to be really effective.”

Dr. Peter Gulick, a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, also emphasized the importance of masks and vaccines to prevent the spread of COVID among children — and everyone. And, he noted, while children continue to make up very few of the country’s pandemic deaths, they do die — and they could face serious long-term health issues after having COVID.

“What about the post-COVID syndrome?” Gulick asked. “In long COVID, people develop lung issues, heart issues. What about kids? Kids who are growing? If growing tissue gets infected with the virus, will they develop lung problems? Learning disabilities? We don’t know any of that yet.”

‘Smart Science Alliance’

It’s these kinds of questions, combined with the anxiety and anger over no statewide mask mandate, that’s driving more parents to become engaged politically in Michigan, said Marie Griffioen and Tricia Ophoff. 

Earlier this month, the two West Michigan women launched “Smart Science Alliance,” a group that is advocating for a universal mask mandate in schools until COVID-19 vaccines are available to all children. Since its inception, the group has garnered close to 2,000 members and held a rally outside the Kent County Health Department last week in an effort to persuade the county to issue a mask mandate for schools.

Waving signs emblazoned with phrases like “science over fear” and “science is real,” the group was met with another crowd: those opposed to wearing masks in school. Once the anti-maskers began gathering, they made sheep sounds at those advocating for masks in schools. They yelled into bullhorns, calling masks face diapers. One man “compared vaccination to rape,” according to one of the rally’s organizers.

“We had agreed both sides would keep it classy, but they came with bullhorns and were screaming at us,” Griffioen continued. “They compared vaccination to rape. It devolved quickly into a very unclassy protest where people were calling masks face diapers and bahh-ing at us like we’re sheep. It was very aggressive. I really wanted to understand them, but when they’re playing, ‘Proud to be an American’ loudly and calling us fascists, it’s hard to hear their point.”

I think the one thing that’s most concerning as a pediatrician with this latest round of COVID illnesses is we’re certainly seeing more kids sick with COVID in the hospital.

– Dr. Scott Grant, a pediatrician at the DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan

Had those opposed to masks listened to Griffioen’s point, they would have heard that her support for masks is rooted in her four children, two of whom have asthma. 

“I just do not understand the reasoning [behind not wearing masks] when there are children under 12” in the classrooms, Griffioen said. 

“They’re going to spread COVID; they just are,” she continued. “And we don’t know the long-term effects of any of this. My son who has asthma, if he wears a mask and contracts COVID from something without a mask, there’s a whole spectrum of what could happen to him. Will he be infertile? Will he have lung damage?”

These are questions Griffioen wants no parent to have to ask. But for that to happen, she said, there needs to be a statewide mask mandate for schools.

“If you are a leader and can’t step up and do what’s right, you need to resign,” she said, referring to the lack of mask requirements. “I see this whole system as being broken, and we want to fix it.”

Johnson also said the politics surrounding masks and COVID in general is creating a “willingness to get politically engaged like I’ve never before seen from parents.”

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t like politics, but I’ve never been so excited to support candidates who are pro-science,’” Johnson said. 

Smart Science Alliance members rally outside the Kent County Health Department in August 2021

As for lawmakers who are currently anti-science? It’s time for that to end if they want to support students and educators, said Peter Spadafore, the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA) executive director for advocacy and communications.

“Lawmakers need to allow flexibility for districts to respond if an outbreak occurs that necessitates schools to close; right now, the School Aid Act is not very flexible in that regard and that’s problematic,” Spadafore said. “Pretending there is not a virus spreading in our state is not useful, and denying the science around masking is not useful.”

MASA would like to see elected officials revise the School Aid Act, which provides schools with state funding, in order to allow them to offer virtual learning. Last year, because of the pandemic, the act was changed to allow for extensive virtual schooling, but that is not the case this year. 

As concerns over children returning to school prompt more parents to become increasingly politically engaged, it’s not solely the adults who are in tune with the political divisions over masking and COVID, noted Holly Bechiri, a Grand Rapids parent. 

“Last year, when we told our son we were keeping him [in virtual school], we were worried about him being upset, but he said, ‘Oh, good; that’s the safe choice, isn’t it?’” Bechiri said of her now 10-year-old son, Ani. “Kids are not dumb. Kids know we are putting them at risk for political reasons.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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