Parents rally at Michigan hospitals for statewide school mask mandate

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Parents rallying outside Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital on Monday pushed for a statewide school mask order and showed support for health care workers besieged by COVID-19 patients 19 months into the pandemic.

The two goals are inextricably related, said Emily Mellits of Romeo. Widespread masking in schools would limit school-related infections, which would limit the burden on health care workers, she said.

"We support them," said Mellits, who has two children in Romeo Community Schools, which does not require students to wear masks. "We are listening. It’s time for our school districts to do the same thing. The easiest way to do that right now is just for the state to issue the mandate."

Pamela Leidlein, right, of Macomb Township holds a sign that reads, “Spread Love Not COVID” as concerned parents and supporters rally in front of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. About a dozen people rallied in support of hospital workers and in favor of a statewide mask mandate for students.

Mellits organized the rally outside Beaumont. About a dozen people joined with balloons and neon signs that had messages calling for wearing masks and supporting health care workers. Some drivers blared car horns in support.

The Royal Oak rally was part of a statewide demonstration in support of universal masking in schools. Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools, a coalition of pro-masking parent groups, organized the rallies outside Michigan hospitals to show their gratitude for health care workers caring for patients during the pandemic. 

The coalition also scheduled rallies outside Spectrum Health's Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell.

Health experts agree wearing masks limits the spread of coronavirus, specifically in schools and other indoor settings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed universal masking, regardless of vaccination status, as a top recommendation for safely hosting in-person classes.

Despite the CDC's recommendation, school mask policies have become a hot-button political issue. Some state Republican leaders spoke out against mask mandates before the start of the school year. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has applauded districts that issued mask orders, she has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying those decisions should be made at the local level

State guidance was complicated recently by language included in the latest state budget, which says county health officials can't impose mask mandates for students younger than 18 and threatens to block departments' funding if they don't get renewed support from their boards of commissioners.

Whitmer has said that language is unconstitutional and won't be enforced. She encouraged local health departments to leave their mask mandates in place, but some have dropped them anyway.

More:Michigan counties are dropping K-12 mask mandates. Whitmer is 'concerned'

Children are affected most by these arguments, said Nicole McCoy. She has two children in Lakeview Public Schools. Both of her children wear masks at school, but they are in the minority, she said.

McCoy and like-minded Lakeview parents have pushed Macomb County and the district for a mask order but have not made progress.

"We feel like we're pushed up against the wall, and our children are the ones suffering," she said.  

More:Mask rules in Michigan schools have parents making tough choices, changing schools

Macomb County Commissioner Mai Xiong attended the rally with her 2-year-old Ariel Kue. Her older children go to Warren Consolidated Schools, where they are required to wear masks. 

Advocates rallied Monday outside Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak for a statewide mask mandate for K-12 students that they argue would cut COVID-19 infections and put less pressure on overworked hospital employees.

"Which I am so grateful for, because my children are not old enough to be vaccinated," she said.

Xiong said she wants the county health department to issue a mask mandate. A mandate from the state health department would be even better. It's an easy way to prevent schools from shutting down again. 

"It just makes sense," she said.

ckthompson@detroitnews.com