Michigan Senate votes to block school mask, vaccines requirements

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate approved bills Tuesday that would attempt to block broad requirements for students to wear masks or to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The four-proposal package passed in party-line votes of 19-15 as federal regulators consider whether to authorize vaccines for children under the age of 12. Republicans said decisions on children's health should be left to parents, not government officials.

But Democrats contended the policies went against science, put kids in danger and promoted conspiracy theories. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to veto the bills if they reach her desk.  

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.

Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, said there was no COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students and the legislation is a "waste of time."

"It is very clear that the school districts, the schools that have not put in place or where their health departments have not put in place the simple, effective procedure of having masks are the ones that are still continuing to put their student body and the families of their student body at risk for what is still a highly contagious, potentially deadly disease," Geiss said in a floor speech.

But Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said the bills would make sure all students have access to their constitutionally protected education. Forcing vaccines and mask mandates are driving people apart, she said.

"Just because you disagree with another parent’s decision, you have no right to make that decision for them," Theis said.

Tuesday's votes came amid intense and ongoing debate across the state over whether schools and local health departments should require masks be worn during class to stem the spread of COVID-19. Early data suggest the requirements are working in Michigan.

One bill approved Tuesday, sponsored by Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, would ban the state health department and local health departments from issuing emergency orders to force students to wear face masks, be tested for the coronavirus if they are asymptomatic or receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Local health officials have issued school mask requirements covering 15 counties, according to data from the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

Another bill sponsored by Theis says schools districts must provide waivers from mask requirements if they impose the mandates themselves. The policy could allow children to avoid having to wear masks.

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said school districts without mask requirements were "experiencing higher case rates." And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for "universal masking" in schools.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, accused Republicans of promoting "conspiracy-laden nonsense" about the COVID-19 pandemic by advancing the legislation on Tuesday.

"This body is actually putting Michigan citizens in danger," Hertel said.

The Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators opposes the Senate bills, said Peter Spadafore, the organization's deputy executive director for external relations.

"Blanket laws" that prohibit flexibility are not productive, Spadafore said.

As of Monday, Michigan had reported 1.1 million COVID-19 cases and 21,918 deaths linked to the virus. Vaccines are helping limit the spread of COVID-19, but those under the age of 12 are currently not able to be vaccinated.

cmauger@detroitnews.com