Michigan Republicans oppose mask requirements as schools reopen

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — High-profile Michigan Republicans are pushing against mask requirements at schools this fall despite recommendations from public health experts that the policies will help combat the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday night, Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, issued a statement that said parents know what's best for their children. And in an interview this week with Jackson TV, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake, labeled mask mandates at schools the "dumbest thing" that could be done.

"There's no reason to have mask mandates in schools," Shirkey said. "I think parents should absolutely make the decision on whether they want their kids to be masked up in schools. But there should be zero mask mandates for schools."

Meshawn Maddock, a 2016 Trump delegate from Milford, reacts to a large crowd at Trumperware .

Because of the highly contagious delta variant that's already caused surges in hospitalizations in the southern U.S., the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal indoor masking for all students age 2 and older in schools.

Likewise, with COVID-19 hospitalizations on the rise in Michigan, the state Department of Health and Human Services has advised schools to "require universal masking for all students, staff and visitors regardless of community transmission rate or vaccination status."  Last week, the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said everyone older than the age of 2 should wear masks in schools this fall regardless of their vaccination status.

“The recommendation for universal masking of all children older than 2 years is one of multiple measures to reduce transmission in the school setting," said Dr. Sharon Swindell, a pediatrician and past president of the academy's Michigan chapter.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has, so far, resisted implementing a statewide requirement that students wear masks in schools. But the pressure is mounting as many districts hold their first day of in-person classes in the next four weeks.

Meanwhile, the state reported 808 adults hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday, up 22% compared with the total a week earlier. And the state health department has said a fourth surge of the virus is "likely."

Without action from the state, the decisions on whether to require masks rest on local school boards and county health departments. In her Monday statement, Maddock said she stands with "parents across our state that are fighting back and speaking up against delusional behavior from liberal administrators who deal more in virtue signaling than science and safety."

"As parents, you know what is best for you and your child," Maddock said. "Keep calling and emailing your school board, superintendent, principal and other administrators who need to be held accountable for these actions.”

Democrats blasted Maddock's comments.

"Apparently the co-chair of the MIGOP does not care about the health of our kids," tweeted Abby Rubley, spokeswoman for the Michigan Democratic Party. "Masks save lives."

During his appearance on Jackson TV, Shirkey, the top GOP lawmaker in the Senate, contended that 335 kids below the age of 16 had died because of COVID-19 in the U.S.

"That's a real small numerator and a very large denominator," Shirkey said.

However, according to CDC data, the rate of children being hospitalized with the coronavirus has been increasing to new highs this month. Those under the age of 12 can't get vaccinated yet.

"With return to school year, lack of layered mitigation measures will likely mean increases in cases and severe outcomes among children," the Michigan health department said in a presentation last week.

Four other Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the Kent County Health Department last week, arguing against a countywide mask mandate.

"We in the Legislature are willing to use the constitutional tools at our disposal — including the power of the purse — should a public health officer act outside the sphere of proper authority," said the letter from Reps. Thomas Albert of Lowell, Steve Johnson of Wayland, Bryan Posthumus of Cannon Township and Mark Huizenga of Walker.

"Personally, I don't believe they have the authority to implement a mask mandate and should they try, I will refuse to follow their mandate and encourage others to disobey this overreach into people's lives," Johnson posted on Facebook. "It's time to move on Michigan."

On Tuesday, another House Republican, Rep. John Damoose of Harbor Springs, introduced a bill to prohibit school districts from requiring face masks. House leadership referred the proposal to the House Education Committee. 

“This plan is simple: Empower parents — not the government — to decide whether students wear masks at school," Damoose said. “Parents know their own children’s needs best, and our schools should be supporting parents rather than undermining them."