Metro Detroit parents are angry as local officials decide whether to mask up students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

 The absence of a statewide mask mandate for Michigan's K-12 schools has prompted several county health departments to issue mandates of their own, turning community public health officials into pariahs or saviors in the growing controversy over kids, masks and COVID-19.

On Wednesday, opposing practices by health officials in neighboring Metro Detroit counties prompted a protest backlash — one over Oakland County's mask mandate and another over the lack of one in Macomb County. 

In Oakland County, more than 150 parents and students angry over a county mandate implemented Tuesday that masks must be worn in schools regardless of vaccination status announced they are pushing back against the policy. As they demonstrated outside county offices in Pontiac, they vowed to send their children into schools without masks, turn to homeschooling or file a lawsuit in a bid to block the emergency health order issued.

Shannah Capitani, 42, of Rochester Hills holds a yellow sign reading "Unmask our children" at a protest at the Oakland County Health Division offices in Pontiac on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021.

“We have a constitutional right to freedoms and make our own choices. We are the parents," said Brian Allen, a parent of two children in the Waterford School District, who added he doesn't believe the county or schools have the right to force about 210,000 kids to wear masks.

“We are sending our kids to school without masks. If they turn them away, so be it. It will be noted on the record, and we will homeschool until such time they give us back our rights as parents and as American citizens,” Allen said.

Later Wednesday, about 20 people gathered outside the Macomb County Health Department in Mount Clemens to criticize the county’s lack of a mask mandate.

Carrying signs with messages such as “Listen to the experts” and “Protect our children,” they stood in the sweltering heat to send a message that they believe masking up is critical to tamping down the surging delta strain of the coronavirus.

“The mask mandate needs to be in place until all students have access,” said Kati Freeland, an organizer from Sterling Heights.

The dueling rallies illustrate the dilemma local school district and health department officials are in as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate despite getting such advice from the state's chief medical executive and the urging of federal officials and the White House.

Michigan counties that have issued mask mandates include Genesee, Kalamazoo, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa, although some, like Genesee, only require masks for students in grades K-6.

The list is likely to grow. COVID-19 transmission is high enough in all but two of Michigan's 83 counties that an overwhelming majority of Michigan residents should be wearing masks while in public under federal guidelines, according to the latest data from the CDC.

Tiffini Jackson, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, said Wednesday that “we are in discussions with school districts and communities and heavily considering the implementation of a mask mandate for in-person learning.”

Michigan Board of Education Vice President Pamela Pugh said Wednesday the state should have a mask mandate and she has pushed for one from Whitmer.

"The local health departments and school boards are being pitted against each other. There is an authority at the state level to do this," said Pugh, who is a Democrat like Whitmer. 

Pamela Pugh of Saginaw, vice president of the state Board of Education, wants a state mask mandate. Pugh was among about 20 people who attended a Wednesday rally in front of the Macomb County Health Department requesting the health department require mask wearing for all Macomb County K-12 students, just as Oakland County did this week.

Pugh attended the Macomb event, pointing out that several local districts in the county have mask mandates, such as Warren Consolidated Schools, and several do not, including Utica Community Schools, the county's largest school district.

"We are hoping Macomb County will have the courage to do the same (as Oakland County)," Pugh said.

That was the case in Oakland County prior to Tuesday. Of its 28 local districts, nine had mask mandates in place, nine had announced mask optional policies and 10 districts hadn't made a decision. Whitmer said Monday, before Oakland County’s order, that nearly 35% of Michigan students were in districts that have already implemented mask requirements. She said she was hopeful other schools would adopt similar guidelines. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, said Wednesday that school superintendents continue to meet with county health department officials on possible strategies to deal with “real-time concerns” moving forward.

“We don’t believe there is one side or one size fits all,” Hackel said. “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.”

Wes Nakagiri said Wednesday he doesn’t believe a mask mandate will happen in Livingston County.

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

“We are more conservative than Oakland County, so I don’t think you will see mask mandates here,” said Nakagiri, a Republican who  chairs the Livingston County Board of Commissioners. “We never had any county-issued mandates during the pandemic outside of the state mandate, which we were subject to until it was lifted.”

After Wednesday’s protest, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said he can appreciate that there are strong opinions on both sides of the debate.

"I've been getting calls and emails for weeks now from parents and residents on both sides of the issue," Coulter said. "This isn’t a political decision, but a health order. It was made with the best guidance of our public health staff and in conjunction with superintendents."

Coulter, a Democrat, says he supports the order because it lets schools "get back to what they do best: educate our kids in person."

Parent Aimee Gurski was among more than 150 people who stood outside the main doors of the health department in the Oakland County complex to protest the order. Her two children, a sixth-grader and a high school freshman, attend Walled Lake Consolidated Schools and started school on Wednesday.

“It’s not fair to make our kids go through this again," Gurski said. "Our kids suffer emotionally, mentally, and they need to be able to connect.”

Gurski said she masked her kids, who are vaccinated, for school Wednesday and is applying for a religious waiver to exempt them from wearing a mask.

Protesters march around the Oakland County Health Division at a protest in Pontiac on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021.

D.J. Ryan, whose children attend Huron Valley Schools, said he came to the protest because he believes in choice.

“People can wear a mask. That is fine. We don’t want to wear a mask. That's our choice, our kids,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he plans to send his children to school without a mask. They start after Labor Day.

Allen’s 12-year-old daughter, Eryka Rood-Caruso, says she is prepared to enter seventh grade without a mask.

“I would much rather go to school without a mask and speak up for my rights,” she said. “At this point, I used to be afraid to make a bad impression on teachers. At this point, I have to speak up for my rights. If you are going to kick me out for not wearing a piece of cloth over my face, I’m not going to school.”

Destiny Warwick, an organizer with Oakland County Parents for In-person Learning, a grassroots community group launched this year and the group behind Wednesday's Macomb County 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-19, the first time early in the pandemic when her workplace did not require that masks be worn, 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," Brugnone said. "The schools need to protect our children, especially because most of them are too young to qualify for the vaccine."

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

Bruce Fealk, left, of Rochester Hills, a crossing guard there, holds the microphone for First Congregational Church in Romeo pastor Kim Newport, right, as she addresses the crowd Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Approximately 25 people attend the Macomb County Parents for Safe In-Person School rally in front of the Macomb County Health Department to ask the health department to mandate mask wearing for all Macomb County K-12 students, just as Oakland County did this week.

"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.

Brad Banasik, legal counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said school districts don't have any choice but to comply with county health orders.

"There is no gray area in terms of the counties having the authority to issue these orders," Banasik said. "A district is required to enforce the order. From a legal perspective, there isn't any option."

Staff Writers Mike Martindale and Mark Hicks contributed.