Group of Michigan parents seeking universal K-12 school mask mandate

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A group of Michigan parents who say they are pushing back against anti-mask advocates across the state launched a petition on Wednesday seeking a universal mask mandate for all K-12 schools.

The Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools, a statewide coalition of parent groups that support masking in schools, says the statewide mandate is needed to defend children from COVID-19.

Four Michigan parents, a school board member from Macomb County and an infectious disease physician who is a West Michigan parent held a press conference via Zoom Wednesday to make the announcement.

Emily Mellits, a parent in Macomb County and a member of the coalition, said the order should require that masks be worn regardless of vaccination status during class, inside school buildings and at school board meetings.

Mellits said a statewide order is needed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services because most Michigan counties lack the political will to pass one.

People attend the Macomb County Parents for Safe In-Person School rally in front of the Macomb County Health Department on Aug. 25, 2021 in an effort to convince health officials to institute a mask mandate for K-12 schools.

"The political landscape of the county which we reside can determine a lot but it should not determine whether or not children and their right to an uninterrupted education are protected," Mellits said.

About 60% of Michigan students — or nearly 758,000 — are covered by mask rules in Michigan, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office last week.

Health departments in 12 Michigan counties have instituted mask mandates: Kalamazoo, Allegan, Genesee, Kent, Ottawa, Oakland, Wayne, Benzie-Leelanau, the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, Ingham and Washtenaw and Berrien.

Mellits, who has two school-age children, said she has been called a Communist for advocating for mask-wearing in schools. She wants other pro-mask parents to know they are not alone.

"Today we are standing up to vicious anti-maskers who have threatened physicians and school board members that are supportive of masks in schools. Some have gone as far as to send death threats. This is simply unacceptable."

Macomb County does not have a mandate. Mary Hall-Rayford, an Eastpointe Community Schools school board member and part of the coalition, said parents are stuck in an impossible position: send their child to school fearing they may get COVID-19 or keep them home and watch them fall behind in learning. The district is in Macomb County.

"Parents depend on medical and health experts for guidance," Hall-Rayford said. "Families should not have to count on school boards for guidance. Some school boards follow science and wear masks and they get threatened with violence."

Whitmer has left decisions about mask rules up to local districts and county health departments.

In August, Michigan's Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun disclosed she advised Whitmer that a statewide requirement for students to wear masks would likely help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said on Wednesday 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 said.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate committee approved bills that would limit the ability of schools and health departments to broadly require students to wear masks.

While the new proposals are expected to face opposition from Whitmer if they reach her desk, Sen. Lana Theis, the GOP chairwoman of the panel, said Republicans want the Democratic governor to "understand what the citizens of Michigan are concerned about."

On Sept. 8, new guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services said Michigan students who've been exposed to COVID-19 but don't have symptoms can avoid quarantining at home if they were wearing masks and they undergo daily testing.

New COVID-19 outbreaks continue to climb this week in Michigan schools, with 74 new outbreaks reported by state health officials on Monday including four more at universities.