State education board resolution supporting mask mandate in Michigan's schools fails

A proposed resolution to require face masks in schools and testing of COVID-19 positive children before they return to school failed after hundreds of Michigan residents flooded public comment at the State Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

Titled, "Layered Public Health Approach to Keep Schools Open During Pandemic" and authored by board Vice President Pamela Pugh, a Saginaw Democrat, the resolution asked for state law to be "invoked to require well-fitted face masks be properly worn on school buses and indoors at all public school facilities and events for students, teachers, staff and all school visitors, regardless of vaccination status."

It also says state law should be "invoked to require testing of children prior to returning to school after a COVID-19 diagnosis; promote that schools use “test to stay” for children exposed to COVID-19; and require accurate information, regarding all school-related exposures, be shared with all persons potentially exposed, including parents of potentially exposed children."

Democrats Ellen Cogen Lipton and Jason Strayhorn joined Pugh in voting in favor of the measure, but it failed when Republicans Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder and Democrats Judith Pritchett and Casandra Ulbrich voted against the proposal. Board member Tiffany Tilley was absent.

The state board of education has no authority to mandate masks or vaccines, said Martin Ackley, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education.

Pritchett, a Democrat from Washington Township, said she believes in what vaccines do and that they will make a difference in the health of the community and the world. But she could not support the resolution as written. 

She recommended that schools and public health departments share fact sheets about vaccination to school-age families, and provide vaccination clinics at schools.

"Masks do and will make a difference," she continued, adding that she supported the state resolution passed in August that encourages school districts in consultation with local county health departments to make the final decision regarding masks.

Pugh said she has a problem with touting local control during a global pandemic.

"Local control for a global pandemic that is not subsiding but continues to hospitalize children, children have died, it continues to be the top 10 cause of death and orphans children," said Pugh. 

Snyder, a Republican from Dexter, criticized the resolution, especially the portion about routine testing, calling it  "utterly ridiculous."

"If this is the kind of government we think is appropriate, watch out. I do not know what comes next," said Snyder.

State Board of Education Vice President Pamela Pugh of Saginaw addresses a crowd on Aug. 25, 2021 in Macomb County. A proposed resolution to require face masks in schools and testing of COVID-19 positive children before they return to school was introduced by Pugh Tuesday.

More than 165 people had registered to speak at the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting. The board extended public comment for one more hour Tuesday as more callers expressed their disdain or support of such a measure. Another 400 people were waiting to either speak during public comment or express their views. The board said late Tuesday afternoon, based on 20 people speaking for the per-person limit of 3 minutes each, there were enough people waiting to hold 30 hours of public comment.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the board voted 6-1 to postpone public comment until after the business portion of the meeting concluded. Voting no was Pugh, who objected to hearing public comments after the board already potentially voted on the issue.

More than 750 people were watching the monthly state board meeting which is taking place in person in Lansing and is broadcast live on YouTube

Michigan has no statewide mandate for masks in schools. Many county health departments and local districts have approved mask rules in their own jurisdictions.

Last month, state health officials and state superintendent Michael Rice told local superintendents that universal indoor mask-wearing at schools is "critical" to ensuring students can continue learning in person.

Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski contributed.