Parents protest lack of mask mandate for Macomb County K-12 students

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — As Sierra Warwick prepares for a new school year in Macomb County amid spiking coronavirus cases, the incoming eighth grader doesn't mind wearing a mask.

The 12-year-old doesn't see the covering as a hindrance and said she supports a mandate for her and other students in the classroom. 

"I want to make sure they’re safe," she said Wednesday while wearing a rainbow-colored mask. "I just genuinely think we should enforce it."

Liz Allen, left, of St. Clair Shores, a teacher and instructional technology coach with the L'Anse Creuse School District, and Sierra Warwick of Roseville, an eighth-grade student at a Macomb middle school, attend the rally Wednesday calling for a mask mandate in schools.

The youth joined about 20 people gathered outside the Macomb County Health Department in Mount Clemens on Wednesday evening to criticize the county’s lack of a mask mandate for students ahead of the upcoming school year.

Carrying signs with messages such as "Reduce the risk," “Listen to the experts” and “Protect our children,” they withstood sweltering heat to send a message that they believe masking up is critical to tamping down the surging delta strain of COVID-19.

“The mask mandate needs to be in place until all students have access to a vaccine,” Kati Freeland, an organizer from Sterling Heights, told The Detroit News. "Whether they get a vaccine is their choice.”

The protest was a stark contrast to a rally held hours earlier in front of the Oakland County Health Division's offices in Pontiac. There, about 150 parents railed against the county's decision Tuesday to require masks for students and staff in schools regardless of vaccination status. Some said they would send their children to school without masks, turn to home-schooling or try to overturn the emergency health order in the courts.

COVID-19 transmission is high enough in all but two of Michigan's 83 counties that an overwhelming majority of residents should be wearing masks in public under federal guidelines, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Approximately 25 people attend the Macomb County Parents for Safe In-Person School rally in front of the Macomb County Health Department, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021 to ask the health department to mandate mask wearing for all Macomb County K-12 students, just as Oakland County did this week.

According to the county health website, Macomb has had 95,625 COVID cases and 2,342 deaths.

So far in August, the county has had more than 2,500 COVID-19 tests register as positive and 10 virus deaths, according to data on its website supplied by the state health department.

The state reports nearly 60% of county residents have been vaccinated.

Other Michigan counties have issued mask mandates including Genesee, Kalamazoo, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa. Some have rules that apply only to certain age groups such as Genesee County, which requires masks for students in grades K-6.

In a video chat this week, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said school superintendents continue to meet with county health department officials on possible strategies to deal with “real-time concerns” moving forward, although he questioned that "if the state refuses to put forth any mandates, then that is a statement in and of itself that there is no need for a mandate."

“We don’t believe there is one side or one size fits all,” Hackel told The News on Wednesday. “It’s important to develop ways to handle certain situations in the schools to help decide when students need to be masked and when they can take them off. I expect in the near future we will be announcing how this will be handled in Macomb County and it may become a model others will follow.”

Those who protested Wednesday in Mount Clemens demanded more immediate action.

Destiny Warwick, an organizer with Oakland County Parents for in-person Learning, a grassroots community group launched this year and who organized the event, said officials' "disregard is teaching kids not to believe in science."

Several participants shared emotional pleas guided by their experiences with the virus.

Rebecca Brugnone of Macomb Township told demonstrators she has twice been diagnosed with COVID, the first time early in the pandemic when her workplace did not require mask-wearing, and continues to suffer debilitating effects. 

Her children were eager to return to in-school learning this fall and had no problem wearing a mask, she said.

"We shouldn’t have to keep our children home when they are willing to do the right thing and wear a mask," she said. "The schools need to protect our children, especially because most of them are too young to qualify for the vaccine."

Kim Newport, pastor at First Congregational Church in Romeo, called the protest a "vital" way to highlight an important issue.

"I think Macomb County is very divided when it comes to masks. However, this is a time to show true community, when we have the most marginalized and vulnerable who are at risk," she said.

Pamela Pugh, vice president of the State Board of Education, addresses the crowd Wednesday in at the Macomb County Health Department.

The event also drew Pamela Pugh, vice president of the State Board of Education.

"I think it’s courageous for parents to come out and counter those who have been vocal but don’t represent the voice of those who want their children protected," she said.