State News

Profiles in courage: 4 West Michigan counties lead the way on school mask mandates

August 20, 2021, 9:18 PM by  Alan Stamm

While our governor's political compass points in the cautious direction of not endorsing school mask requirements this fall, four West Michigan counties take a health safety stance.

(Graphic: Allegan County Health Department)

Kent, Ottawa, Allegan and Kalamazoo counties this week announced facial mask mandates for kindergarten through sixth grade in public schools. 

The goal, health officials say, is to slow the spread of Covid, keep pupils in classrooms and protect those who're unvaccinated.

"We are seeing rapid increases in Covid-19 cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant," Dr. Adam London of Grand Rapids, administrative health officer in Kent County, says in a Friday statement. "It also appears as though this variant may be more likely to cause serious illness and hospitalization, so we need to take precautions to keep our children healthy and in school."  

Detroit's school board voted last week to make masks mandatory for students and staff in all schools for the semester starting Sept. 7. Its 14-page reopening plan also requires weekly Covid tests for teachers, administrators and other staff.

Lansing's system took the same step Aug. 10, when its supertintendent said: "Masks are one of the best mitigating strategies that a school district can employ to keep our family safe."

The first countywide mandates are notable because two are in areas won last November by Donald Trump, who drew nearly 62% of Allegan votes and 60% of those in Ottawa.

Moreover, some Republican state lawmakers in the region speak out against school mask policies. 

State Reps. Luke Meerman of Coopersville and Bradley Slagh of Zeeland, along with Sen. Roger Victory of Hudsonville, on Tuesday sent a letter to the Ottawa County Health Department saying parents and guardians are the only ones who should decide whether pupils have face coverings. "The role of any government agency should be minimized to the greatest extent, in exchange for allowing families to make the best decisions for their school-aged children," they tell Lisa Stefanovsky, administrative health officer.

Four other state House members sent an Aug. 13 letter urging Dr. London in Grand Rapids to let local school boards decide on mask policies and threatening potential budget consequences if he didn't comply. "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," says the warning from GOP Reps. Thomas Albert, Mark Huizenga, Steven Johnson and Bryan Posthu.mus

The Kent County health administrator tells WOOD-TV he'd continue "to focus on what my charge is, what my job is, my responsibility -- which is to look at the data, the science, the epidemiology and try to determine what's best for the community."

(Photo: DepositPhotos)

For its part, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services just "recommends that all schools ... require universal masking for all students, staff and visitors regardless of community transmission rate or vaccination status." Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the agency's chief medical executive, said Wednesday: "If a [school] mask mandate were in place and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of Covid-19."

The federal Centers for Disease Control lists Kent and Kalamazoo at high risk for virus transmission, its worst level.

Kent is logging 109 average daily cases, its health department posts Friday. Ottawa County recorded an average of 51 daily Covid cases during the past week, it posts Friday. The weekly rate in Kalamazoo County was 131 cases per 100,000 population from Aug. 9-16, its health department says. Allegan's case rate isn't readily available online.

Inspiration hat tip to Chad Livengood of Crain's Detroit Business for this tweet Friday.


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