Michigan health director's school mask stance 'troubling,' board of education Democrat says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Democratic member of the Michigan State Board of Education is urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration to require masks in schools and says the state's position on the subject, which leaves the decision up to local officials, is "quite troubling."

On Thursday, Pamela Pugh, vice president of the education board and a former public health official in Saginaw County, released a letter she received from Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Pamela Pugh of Saginaw, vice president of the state Board of Education addresses the crowd, Wednesday evening, August 25, 2021. She was among 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.

In it, Hertel, who has the power to issue a statewide school mask mandate, said she agrees with "top health experts" who recommend universal masking in K-12 buildings. But she gave no indication she was moving any closer to imposing such a policy statewide in Michigan.

"Districts and local public health leaders should work together to implement mask mandates," Hertel wrote to Pugh on Tuesday. "When they collaborate, we can create buy-in at the community level, leading to better outcomes and better adherence to policies that keep people safe.

"MDHHS recommends every district adopt a mask mandate so they can keep their students, staff and parents safe while allowing students to continue to learn and grow in the classroom."

For more than six weeks, Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations tied to the virus have been trending upward. The state health department posted a data update this week showing that the largest percentage increases in new cases over the last seven days had been among individuals in the age groups of 0-9 and 10-19.

One slide in the presentation also said case rates were higher in counties without school mask requirements. In her letter to Pugh, Hertel said about 60% of Michigan students were covered by mask mandates implemented by their school district or the local county health department.

Pugh responded to Hertel on Thursday, saying that it appears "MDHHS, under you and Governor Whitmer’s leadership, will not be exercising your authority and this is quite troubling to me."

The board of education member said Saginaw County has not imposed a countywide mask requirement, although it has one of the highest COVID-19 rates per capita.

"Please know that I understand that these are difficult decisions to make in the political climate that we live in," Pugh wrote. "However, I am truly having a hard time settling with the thought that our children, teachers, and parents must experience illness instead of public health stepping up to do what we are called to do, exercise the art of prevention to protect the health of people and community."

The debate over whether to require masks in schools has been contentious since the beginning of August. Most Michigan schools have reopened for the new year over the last five weeks.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have been pressing health officials to allow parents to decide whether their children go to classes with masks on.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee approved bills that would limit the ability of schools and health officials to implement mask mandates on students. During the hearing, Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, contended that parents and "not the government" have the best interests of children in mind.

"This ultimately boils down to ... parents making the best decision they can for their children," Barrett said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com