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Michigan board members vote 6-2 along party lines to support COVID protocols in schools

Four children wearing masks and headphones work at laptop computers in a narrow classroom with orange folding chairs. Three hand-lettered posters on the walls read “Respect,” “Love,” and “Compassion.”
The Michigan Board of Education passed a resolution Tuesday supporting local school district decisions to mandate masks next school year.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

A Republican effort to dissuade Michigan schools from requiring masks backfired Tuesday when Democrats instead adopted language that supports districts imposing such mandates.

The vote followed indignation, tears, and three hours of public comment – mostly against mask mandates.

The Michigan Board of Education members’ passion for the issue does not match their authority.

“We have no more ability to impose a mask mandate than to prohibit a mask mandate at the state board or the state department,” Superintendent Michael F. Rice said.

Republican Nikki Snyder of Dexter, who opposes mask and vaccine mandates, said non-binding resolutions still matter.

“We consistently discuss issues that we don’t have the authority to write policy or legislation [about] but our statements matter. They make a difference,” she said.

The board voted 6-2 along party lines to replace Republican Tom McMillin’s proposed ban on mask mandates with a statement supporting local districts’ “ability to make scientifically informed decisions including mask mandates.”

On the same party-line vote, the board rejected McMillin’s two other resolutions. One would have discouraged schools from penalizing, segregating, or quarantining unvaccinated students. The other would have urged school districts to stop COVID testing.

Earlier, Snyder cried as she told the board she distrusts the federal government’s ability to regulate vaccines because, she said, a drug she took during pregnancy caused birth defects in her children.

Dozens of parents turned up – mostly virtually – to comment on mask and vaccine mandates. Nearly all opposed them.

Among their arguments: Masks are uncomfortable. They create a false sense of protection from disease. They create an irrational fear of germs. They make it difficult for children speaking English as a second language. They inhibit social interaction. Wearing them should be a personal choice.

One mother from Grand Blanc said masks exacerbate her daughter’s social anxiety.

“She doesn’t know how to deal with people because she can’t see them. She doesn’t know what they’re thinking and feeling,” she told the board over speakerphone.

Board officials were unable to provide full names for commenters who participated remotely.

Another mother, from Rochester Hills, supports mask mandates.

“The negative effects of [the delta variant] on our children far outweigh any inconvenience of wearing a mask, and masks, we know, work better when everyone wears them,” she said. “One parent choosing not to have their child wear a mask means my child is less protected.”

The debate over mask mandates has been raging across the country. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is mandating them. In Florida, Democratic mayors are at odds with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis who threatened to withhold funding from districts that mandate masks. New York City and Denver are requiring masks in schools. And places like Tennessee are implementing a patchwork of policies.

McMillin, of Oakland Township, said almost everyone he’s talked with believes it’s abusive to require children to wear masks all day.

People are “rising up all across the state. They want to be heard. This is child abuse, what’s being done to their children, and this is serious,” he said.

Democrat Pamela Pugh bristled.

“If masks are child abuse then Halloween masks are child abuse. Let’s not get into saying that masks are child abuse,” said Pugh of Saginaw.

Later, Pugh accused Snyder and McMillin of supporting policies that jeopardize lives.

“Our children need to wear masks, not only to protect themselves but to protect others,” she said. “You want to take the protection they have away? You’re killing our children. That’s on you.”

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