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Michigan Senate committee approves bills to limit school mask mandates


Lansing — A Republican-controlled Michigan Senate committee approved bills Tuesday that would limit the ability of schools and health departments to broadly require students to wear masks.

The 4-1 votes from the Education and Career Readiness Committee are a sign of the intensifying political battle over school policies that are intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 but some parents say go too far.

While the new proposals are expected to face opposition from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer if they reach her desk, Sen. Lana Theis, the GOP chairwoman of the panel, said Republicans want the governor to "understand what the citizens of Michigan are concerned about."

"We are very much concerned about COVID," Theis said after Tuesday's meeting. "There are many, many other things associated with the government's response to COVID that are also urgently necessary that we address. And overall, it's been largely ignored."

The bills approved by the committee require school districts to provide "a waiver process" if they require masks be worn by students in their buildings.

"A school district, intermediate school district or public school academy shall not discriminate against or treat differently a pupil solely based on whether or not the pupil's parent or legal guardian or the pupil has requested a waiver," one of the proposals said.

Another bill in the package would bar the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services or a local health official from issuing an emergency order requiring a student to receive a vaccination available through emergency use authorization, to wear a face mask or to be tested for COVID-19 if the child is asymptomatic.

Dozens of school districts and some county health departments imposed policies before the start of the current school year requiring students to wear masks because of concerns spurred by rising COVID-19 infection rates and the highly contagious delta variant.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan has been inching upward for more than six weeks. And children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible for vaccinations.

Whitmer's administration has not imposed a statewide mask mandate for students. However, she's spoken in support of local officials who have.

"After 19 months of COVID, the science is clear: vaccines and masks keep kids safe and help them continue learning in person," Whitmer said in a statement in August after Wayne County, the state's largest county, announced a mask requirement for K-12 students and staff.

About 57% of Michigan's students are in districts with mask requirements, according to a Department of Health and Human Services presentation from Aug. 31. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking by students because of the highly contagious delta variant.

During Tuesday's occasionally tense Senate hearing, about a dozen individuals spoke out against mask requirements, primarily arguing that the decisions should be left up to parents. Kristena Liles of Oxford, a mother of three, said her daughter in kindergarten is speech delayed.

"She cannot learn how to properly format her sounds and articulate words properly with everyone wearing a mask around her," Liles said.

"It just doesn't work for my daughter," she added.

No one testified against the Republican-backed bills during the meeting, which lasted about an hour. Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, the top Democrat on the committee, called the hearing "one sided."

"If the mask wearing is spotty, it’s not going to do the job it’s supposed to do," Polehanki said of the argument that parents should decide individually whether children wear masks to schools.

Everyone must come together to tamp down the virus, the senator said.

"Otherwise, we’re going to be wearing masks for a very long time," she said.

The only other Democrat on the education committee, Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, walked out of the meeting within 20 meetings of its start. Geiss called the meeting a "farce," saying it was hard to listen to colleagues rail against a government that they work for.

Geiss said she was frustrated that another lawmaker, Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, brought up abortion and gun violence while she was answering questions about the COVID-19 bills.

“I’m 90 minutes from Chicago. More kids are dying there from gun shots than COVID,” LaSata said at one point Tuesday.

Another sponsor behind the bills, 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.

Geiss said of remarks made during the committee, "If you don't like government, then why are you in it?"

The bills now go to the full Senate. They also still have to pass the House before heading to the governor for consideration.

cmauger@detroitnews.com