Survey shows sharp political, racial divides on school mask mandates

By: - September 7, 2021 2:47 pm

Detroit Public Schools Community District Priest Elementary-Middle School on Sept. 7, 2021 | Ken Coleman

Michigan parents are split on whether or not students should be required to get vaccinated or wear a mask this school year, according to a study done by the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a Lansing-based advocacy group

The study, conducted by the Glengariff group between Aug. 24 to 26, surveyed 600 parents in the state. 

About 39% of parents surveyed strongly support mandating masks while nearly 37% strongly oppose a mask mandate in schools, with big racial and political divides. 

A majority of Michigan students attend a school district with a mask mandate in place, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). At least a dozen county health departments, including some of the state’s most populous counties, have a mask mandate in place for school districts. 

Education officials have asked state officials to impose a statewide mask mandate, like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did in prior years. But her administration is looking for local school districts to handle it this school year. 

“There are no plans for any statewide mask orders, including for schools, at this time,” DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin told the Advance via email on Thursday. “Director [Elizabeth] Hertel continues to monitor case rates, hospitalizations and vaccine rates to help guide her decisions.”

The survey results vary by political leanings, race and where they are in the state. Parents who are Republican, white and live in rural areas largely oppose mask mandates. 

About 78% of Republican parents opposed a mask mandate and about 18% supported it. Most Democratic parents who were surveyed, 87%, support a mask mandate and 10% oppose it. 

For white parents, 41% support a mask mandate and 53% oppose one.  

Whereas, a strong majority of Black parents — 94% — support a mask mandate.

As for COVID-19 vaccination requirements, a majority of parents oppose a mandate, especially unvaccinated parents. About 58% of parents oppose requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for students and 37% of parents support it. For the parents who do not plan on getting vaccinated themselves, only 3% would support their child being vaccinated.  

Michigan currently requires several vaccinations for school entry — for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, meningitis and chickenpox — although parents can claim personal exemptions.

Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Syringes are prepped with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before being administered at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. | Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

Student achievement during COVID-19

The survey also asked parents about whether they believe their student fell behind in school during the pandemic and if they feel like schools supported students this last school year. 

When asked whether their children had fallen behind academically, 49% said their kids had fallen behind as a result of the pandemic and 50% responded that their kids were on track or ahead.

Of Detroit public school parents, Trump Republican parents and unvaccinated parents, most believe their child has fallen behind academically — 63%, 60% and 62% respectively.

A quarter of surveyed parents believe their school did not support their child during the pandemic last school year, with the strongest disapproval rates coming from Republicans, parents in rural areas and unvaccinated parents. 

Parents want school funding increase  

Regardless of demographics, most parents want more funding for their local school districts.

“It’s going to take a great effort for our schools to remediate the challenges brought on by the pandemic and the critically important programs we are implementing this year can only remain in place if Michigan takes the steps to rethink our funding formula and continue to invest in our students’ needs once again,” said Erik Edoff, vice president of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan and superintendent of L’Anse Creuse Public Schools. “It’s gratifying to know our parents believe in the importance of that as well.”

The state made a historic investment of more than $4 billion into K-12 districts for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, fully funded by federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER). Former President Donald Trump in December passed $841 million in ESSER II funding and $3.3 billion came from ESSER III funding from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan in March.

This supplemental funding is for Fiscal Year 2021, which ends at the end of the month. But the Senate passed a $17 billion School Aid budget for Fiscal Year 2022, which begins Oct. 1. 

A minimum of 60% of every demographic group supports extending the temporary increase to a permanent increase, and nearly 79% of all parents surveyed support this. 

When asked how those dollars should be spent, nearly 25% of parents chose more individualized tutoring for students, while just over 20% selected more options for skilled trades training and 18.5% would like to see more nurses and counselors to improve students’ mental and physical health.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.