Poll shows where Michigan parents stand on school mask requirements

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan parents are closely divided on whether schools should require their children to wear masks to combat COVID-19, and the vast majority of them have strong feelings on the subject, according to a new poll.

About 49% of those surveyed said they supported requirements that all students and staff in a school wear masks, while about 45% said they opposed the idea, according to the survey of 600 parents with children in public schools. The Aug. 23-26 poll by Glengariff Group had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points and was commissioned by the K-12 Alliance of Michigan.

When the topic was addressed differently, specifically raising the possibility of parents deciding about mask use, 54% said parents should choose whether their students wear masks in schools, and 42% said all students should be required to wear them.

Protesters hold "Unmask Our Children" signs outside Oakland County government buildings on Thursday night, Sept. 2, 2021, to protest the county Health Division's mask mandate for K-12 school students.

"This is the divide we're going to face," said Richard Czuba, president of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

Czuba said the differences in the responses to the two questions demonstrated the power of the argument focused on empowering parents, which GOP lawmakers have used in arguing against broad mask mandates.

The poll points to the fissures confronting education leaders and local public health officials across Michigan in recent weeks as schools reopen for in-person instruction amid increasing COVID-19 case numbers and fears of a fourth surge of the virus. All schools will be open Tuesday following Labor Day.

The state has experienced heated protests and school board meetings over whether masks should be required to be worn in school buildings, where children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for coronavirus vaccinations.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has declined to impose a statewide mask requirement through an epidemic order, leaving the decision to local officials. In many large counties — Wayne, Oakland and Genesee — the county health departments are requiring masks for at least young students. Michigan's third largest county, Macomb, has avoided a mask mandate and left the decision to local districts.

About 40% of Michigan's public school districts were under a mandatory mask policy for students in all K-12 grades, according to a presentation last week from the state Department of Health and Human Services. School districts with mask requirements for all grades covered 57% of students at that point, the presentation reported. 

Parents feel strongly about the subject regardless of which side of the debate they stand on, according to the new poll. On whether all students and employees should have to wear masks in schools, 39% said they "strongly" support a requirement and 36% said they "strongly" oppose it.

Only 11% said they "somewhat" support a mandate, 9% said they "somewhat" oppose it, and 5% said they didn't know or refused to answer.

The division over mask mandates broke down along geographic and political lines.

Among parents who said they lived in urban areas of Michigan, 76% supported requiring masks. In suburban areas, 56% did. In small-town areas, 39% did. And in rural areas, 23% did. In rural areas, 69% opposed mask requirements.

Pamela Pugh of Saginaw, vice president of the state Board of Education, advocated for a school mask mandate in Macomb County, where the county has not issued one, at an Aug. 25, 2021 rally in front of the Macomb County Health Department.

Among Republican parents, about 78% opposed a mask mandate, while 18% supported it.

Among Democratic parents, 10% opposed a mask mandate and 87% supported it.

Superintendents are relying on the best available guidance from health experts on how they can keep students safe, but it's clear those answers have taken on a divisive and often politicized tone, said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance,  the education policy organization that commissioned the poll.

"We can disagree on what ultimately is best for our students' health and safety, but we can also respect that educators are relying on health experts to guide the process of what is ultimately going to keep kids safely in classrooms this year where we know they learn best," McCann said.

The new survey also found approval among parents of the way school districts handled the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced some districts to move instruction online last school year. Asked about the way their school supported their children last year, 69% of parents surveyed approved while 25% said they disapproved.

On whether their children had fallen behind academically, 49% said their kids had fallen behind with 50% saying their kids were on track or ahead.

"The strong support Michigan parents have for our public schools reflects the work educators have put in to help students and families throughout this pandemic," McCann said. "As we reopen our classrooms this fall, we're grateful to be doing so with the funding support needed to implement new programs that will directly help our students succeed after a year of unparalleled challenges put in front of them."

Among the survey's participants, 32% identified as Republicans, 28% identified as Democrats, and 32% identified as independents — which differs from Michigan's partisan landscape where Democrats outnumber Republicans. Czuba, the pollster, said the demographic of Michigan parents would generally be more conservative leaning than the state's overall population.

cmauger@detroitnews.com