Michigan Board of Education OKs local school district control of masking rules

Ben Wilson
The Detroit News

The Michigan Board of Education on Tuesday voted in favor of a resolution supporting independence for local school districts to make "scientifically informed decisions" including on "mandates for universal masking" at all school facilities and events for students, teachers and visitors regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. 

The Democrat-majority board signed off on the resolution in a 5-2 vote that members stressed "supports the right of local control to mask and not to mask" following a tense, day-long meeting.

Tom McMillin.

The measure replaced an initial resolution brought to the table by the eight-member board's two Republican board members, Tom McMillin of Oakland Township and Nikki Snyder of Dexter, opposing mandatory masking and medical testing for K-12 students. Both Snyder and McMillin cast the only two note votes against the revision. 

The board's resolution comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration last week endorsed a recommendation from the state health department for universal masking in K-12 school buildings, saying it will help increase the amount of in-person learning.  

School districts can design their own policies unless Whitmer issues another epidemic order, which she said on July 27 that she has no plans to do.

McMillin argued Tuesday that forcing masking on students is a form of child abuse.

"We’ve heard of all the horrible consequences," he told board members. "The parents aren't going to just sit by and let this happen."

He noted that unlike most of last school year "there's a vaccine out there."

"Family members, teachers and staff can get it (the vaccine). It's easily obtainable," he said, adding that the board's action communicates that "we oppose masks and mandates." 

Pamela Pugh, D-Saginaw, who proposed the revision to the initial resolution, accused Snyder and McMillin of spewing propaganda and putting "lives in jeopardy." McMillin's so-called rhetoric, she added, is "killing families."

"I am not the enemy. The people who are trying to protect our children are not the enemy," Pugh said. "We need to get the facts straight. We need to put accurate information out or shut our mouths. We need to go up against the enemy that is the enemy and that's COVID."

Snyder ahead of the vote countered Pugh, arguing: "I don't tell you what to do with your body for me. I do what I do with my body. Those are my choices, not your choices. That is not healthy. That is not healthy governance."

Earlier Tuesday, parents spent several hours during public comment sharing views on mask-wearing policies and the potential for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, with most in opposition. 

Dozens of speakers called in for the meeting and several others turned up in person from districts across the state including Livonia, Farmington, Brighton, Rochester Hills, Howell, Grosse Pointe communities and Grand Rapids.

Anna Pennala, a mother of four children in Brighton Public Schools, advocated for a choice whether her children wear masks or get vaccinated. She cited worries over social interactions due to mask-wearing and challenges her children have encountered because of them. 

“It is unnecessary to mask. It’s a travesty what we’re trying to do to our children,” she said. “The parents need to be the boss of what’s best for their children.”

Claire Perko of Farmington said that she believes that there should be a mask mandate for schools, arguing that Oakland County is a "substantial transmission area."

"We need to be proactive here and not reactive," she said. "We need to follow the science ... masks are a proven way to protect others when used universally." 

State Superintendent Michael Rice, during a morning presentation to the board, noted elementary, middle and high school students will be required to wear a mask on school buses this fall. 

Rice noted the requirement while providing an update on school reopening plans. He stressed the importance of masking and vaccinating to protect against the spread of COVID-19 but said there would be "no mandates” outside of the busing requirement, which he noted will apply to students, faculty and drivers. 

"Vaccinations are strongly recommended for all who are eligible," Rice told board members. "Masks and social distancing are as well."

State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice told state Board of Education members Tuesday that vaccinations and masking for COVID-19 are enouraged this fall. Mask requirements will be in place for those riding school buses but the board voted to allow school districts to decide whether masks are required in school buildings or at events.

Rice added school districts and the state will "work hard" to "minimize disruptions."

“If we want to have the best public health and public education year possible, we will work hard as schools, as school districts and as the state,” he said. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services just days ago updated its recommendations for schools, saying the guidance for the 2021-22 academic year reflects the most current recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on masking and prevention strategies for COVID-19 to help operate schools more safely.

State health officials have said in addition to consistent and correct mask use, other CDC strategies include promoting vaccination against COVID-19 for eligible staff and students and physical distancing in schools of at least 3 feet between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask-wearing by students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status.

The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest education union, has said that it believes the CDC’s recommendation for universal masking in schools is in everyone’s best interests.

The CDC recently changed course in its masking recommendations, citing new information about the highly contagious Delta variant’s ability to spread among vaccinated people. Federal health officials said the variant is fueling COVID-19 surges in many parts of the country.

Districts across the state are divided on the policies they intend to impose. 

The Troy School District said in mid-July it will have a mask-optional policy. In the Grosse Pointe Public School System, officials have decided against a mask requirement, prompting objections from some parents.