Advance Notice: Briefs

Parents call for statewide mask mandate, blast pols who oppose it

By: - September 15, 2021 3:11 pm

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Updated, 6:01 p.m. 9/15/21 with a response from DHHS

As COVID-19 cases rise among students and staff throughout Michigan, parents from across the state issued a message for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Wednesday: It’s time for a statewide mask mandate in schools.

The Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools launched a petition Wednesday to advocate for the mask requirement. In a press release announcing the petition, the coalition representing thousands of parents also blasted elected officials and other leaders who oppose such a mandate. On Tuesday, a Republican-controlled state Senate committee pushed forward legislation that would bar state and local health officials from implementing mask mandates in schools, and GOP lawmakers have threatened to pull funding from county health departments that issue mask requirements.

“Responsible Americans who listen to science and medical experts are taking action to defend our children and our loved ones from COVID-19 by wearing masks and getting vaccinated, and parents are outraged that anti-science politicians are threatening those of us who are standing up for public health and safety,” Emily Mellits, a Macomb County parent and a member of the parent coalition, said in a press statement.

“Wearing masks in schools is the bare minimum that we can and must do to defend all our fellow Americans, especially those who are elderly, too young to be vaccinated and who have weakened immunity and compromised health,” Mellits continued.

DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said in an email that “the state is committed to ensuring that Michigan students and educators are safe in the classroom.”

 “We have issued 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 wrote. “Several local health departments and many school districts have already moved forward to require masks in schools; we applaud their efforts and encourage all Michigan districts to follow their lead.”

Sutfin said 757,904 Michigan children are wearing masks in schools, and 60.5% of traditional public school students are attending schools that have a mask requirement. 

Last year, the state required masks to be worn in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but there has been no such mandate this year. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said the state has no plans for a mask mandate and is instead advocating that local school districts and health departments issue such requirements. Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

“We are relying on school districts to work with our local public health experts to develop policies and enlist the support of the community,” Whitmer told reporters earlier this month. “We know that broad mandates are only so effective, and when they happen at the local level it increases compliance.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy health director, said in August that she has urged Whitmer and DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel to issue a statewide mask mandate.

When I see people carrying ‘unmask our kids’ signs and heckle doctors at school board meetings, I see cowardly adults waving the white flag of surrender to the virus.

– Marie Griffioen, Kent County parent

Parents advocating for the statewide mask mandate cited concerns over the fact that children 12 years old and younger do not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine yet and that COVID-19 cases are on the rise in schools. On Monday, the DHHS said 109 schools in Michigan have reported COVID-19 outbreaks, a significant increase over the 31 schools that reported the same the previous week.

Currently, about 15 counties in the state have adopted mask mandates, while more than 60 counties still allow students and staff to be indoors at school without masks, the parent coalition pointed out.

Dr. Rosemary Olivero, a pediatric infectious disease physician practicing in West Michigan, said Wednesday that “COVID-19 doesn’t just put a child’s health at risk” but threatens “everyone that child comes into contact with, including grandma who’s recovering from cancer or a sibling with a chronic health condition.”

“For children too young to get vaccinated, a mask is the only protection they have,” Olivero said in the press release. “With the Delta variant spreading as rapidly as it is, a mask may be all that stands between many of us staying healthy and developing one of the many consequences of COVID-19 infections.”

As of the beginning of September, 177,843 children in Michigan — close to 17% of Michigan’s youth population — have been infected with COVID-19. At least five Michigan children under the age of 15 years old have died from COVID-19 in 2021.

“We urge all our policymakers to listen to the majority of parents who have been silent so far and who are wearing masks, getting vaccinated and respecting each other’s right to be safe from a highly contagious disease,” Marie Griffioen, a parent in Kent County, said in the press release. 

“When I see people carrying ‘unmask our kids’ signs and heckle doctors at school board meetings, I see cowardly adults waving the white flag of surrender to the virus,” Griffioen continued. “These adults can learn something from the children who wear masks fearlessly, who are some of the unsung heroes in this pandemic because they’re making a small sacrifice to keep themselves, their friends and their families safer.”

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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.