Michigan Masks

Signage for the use of a mask is posted at the entry as Ecorse High School students enter the school on Sept. 7.

A coalition of Michigan parents who say they’re fighting against anti-mask protesters called for leaders to enact a statewide mask mandate on Wednesday.

The call-to-action contrasts directly with scenes from Lansing on Tuesday, where lawmakers debated a package of bills that, among other provisions, would prohibit a statewide mask mandate. It’s unlikely Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would sign any of the bills if they reach her desk.

About 60 percent of Michigan schools are under a mask mandate, either ordered by a county health department or a local school district.

In a virtual announcement Wednesday, the pro-mandate parent group, Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools, said it was building up a coordinated effort with parent groups across the state to advocate for stronger COVID-19 protections in public schools.

The group is specifically calling on the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to mandate masks indoors statewide in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

“We’re really looking to not just protect our kids but protect their in-person school year,” Emily Mellits, a Macomb County parent involved with the coalition, said.

The coalition was formed, in-part, to foil the scores of anti-mask protesters who have turned up at county health offices, drowned out school board meetings and staged walkouts as the school year started this past month.

Parents: Help us avoid quarantines

Mellits told the Detroit Free Press that her group is asking for a statewide mask mandate for a few reasons:

To protect immunocompromised children and keep them in school.

To protect immunocompromised educators.

To mitigate the number of outbreaks and disruptions to in-person schools.

Nicole Kessler, a parent in Oakland County, said her 10-year-old son has a rare disorder that makes him vulnerable to illness. Contracting COVID-19 could contribute to hearing loss, she said, a terrifying risk.

“As a family we have been preparing emotionally, spiritually and physically with the reality that my son may lose his hearing,” she said. “What we are not prepared or willing to accept is that a preventable and treatable disease like COVID-19 will accelerate his hearing loss.”

Universal masking will lead to fewer outbreaks in school settings, so fewer children will have to quarantine, Mellits said. Mass quarantines last year created ongoing debacles for parents and caregivers. This year, schools set quarantine rules: Some schools are not requiring quarantines for asymptomatic students who were exposed to someone with COVID-19, and state health guidelines recommend students stay in school if all students are masked at the time of an exposure.

“You have parents forced into a position where they now have to figure out childcare situations; if it’s an hourly worker, they may be losing wages,” she said.

The coalition has involved parent groups in counties across the state, including Macomb, Oakland, Genesee, Wayne, Ottawa and Kent. So far, Whitmer and MDHHS have left decisions up to local health departments and individual districts. Some districts have made masks optional.

Whitmer said in August she wasn’t planning any broad mandates related to masks in schools.

Mellits praised Whitmer’s work over the past year, and said ultimately the group believes the decision should come down from the state department of health.

“Governor Whitmer has really had her hands tied and had quite the battles going on up there in Lansing,” Mellits said. “And so we know that there’s only so much she can do but we do hope that some action can come.”

Mellits also said the anti-mask campaigns being waged at county and school district-levels have gotten out of hand. Those who do support masks have been harassed in some communities, she said, by mask protesters.

“It’s happening to school board members across the state, it’s happening to superintendents, it’s happening to teachers, it’s happening to parents, and it’s really just, it’s gone too far,” she said.

The new coalition plans to rebuke those protests with their own fiery message: Mask up or continue to see the uncontained spread of COVID-19.

Winding through legislatureAt anti-mask protests, parents have said they believe it is their choice to send their children to school with or without masks, some likening the face coverings to child abuse.

Leslie Papastefanou, a mother of two from Highland Township, said at a protest last month that the coverings impacted her child’s mental health, making it harder for her child to read facial expressions.

“It has crushed my children’s spirit, and it might sound trivial to others, but this is my, my children’s mental health,” Papastefanou said.

Many anti-maskers have raised doubts that masks are effective; however, most medical organizations disagree with the skeptics. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends universal masking in schools, and claims that masks reduce the spread of COVID-19 when used with other mitigation measures, like social distancing.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Senate Education Committee approved four bills that would make a statewide mandate impossible. The bills would still need approval from both chambers and the governor to pass. The Senate is next in line to consider the proposals.

The proposed legislation would:

Prohibit the state department of health from requiring students to receive a vaccination with emergency use authorization from the FDA.

Prohibit the state from mandating masks.

Prohibit schools from requiring vaccines with emergency use authorization from the FDA.

Require any school mandating masks to allow students to get waivers to avoid the mandate.

Prohibit schools from testing asymptomatic students as a condition for attending schools.

Prohibit local health departments from mandating masks or vaccines authorized for emergency use.

The Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Lena Theis of Brighton, said in an emailed statement that students shouldn’t be punished for refusing to wear a mask.

“Children belong to their parents – not the state and not a school – and, as such, it is a parent’s right to determine their health care,” she said. “This includes whether their student receives a COVID-19 vaccine or wears a face mask.”

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