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Residents stand up against mask mandate

By Judy Reed

Cedar Springs Board of Education President Heidi Reed and Superintendent Scott Smith listen to parents as they express their feelings about the mask mandate during Monday’s board meeting. Post photo by J. Reed.

A mask mandate ordered by the Kent County Health Department for Kindergarten through 6th grade students last Friday has lit a fire under parents who had been assured by schools, such as Cedar Springs, that they would have a choice this year on whether to wear masks. 

Originally, the MDHHS and local health departments made a recommendation for masks but fell short of a mandate. This included a letter from Kent County Health on August 13. Instead, they were supposedly going to let schools decide for themselves. Then suddenly, last week, county health departments began to mandate that schools enforce masking for K-6 students. A joint order from the Kent County and Ottawa County Health Departments dropped like a bomb on Friday, August 20, the last business day before school was to start, sending parents, school superintendents and school boards into a frenzy. These mandates caused several emergency board meetings in districts across the state to be convened to consider whether to uphold the mandate.

“This was a necessary decision as we are seeing rapid increases in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant,” said Dr. Adam London, Administrative Health Officer at the Kent County Health Department. “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.”

According to London’s order, the Kent Intermediate School District sent a letter dated August 16, urging him to order the mandate if he felt there was imminent danger. However, we know there are several Superintendents whose boards did not want that. We have reached out to KISD through email to find out if there was a vote by Superintendents to request this but have not yet heard anything back.

Residents across Kent and Ottawa Counties immediately began to gather to decide on a plan of action to reach out to school boards, county commissioners, and state legislators.

Cedar Springs resident Todd Norman set up a meeting for parents and other interested parties in Morley Park last Sunday to discuss the mask mandate and what steps should be taken next. A couple of hundred people showed up, and several stood up and shared their frustrations. Included in the audience were school teachers, staff, and board of education members. Board President Heidi Reed spoke and assured everyone that they had been researching the legalities all day, and reaching out to other boards such as Sparta, and their legal team. 

Todd Norman was glad for the turnout. “The meeting was a beginning. I want to thank the numerous educators, administration and school board members for their support. The out flowing love and passion for our children and individual rights was very beautiful to behold. My hope is to unite the community, make everyone feel safe while upholding everyone’s right to choose for themselves and listen to each other. I believe we can do this together,” he said.

Many of the same people attended the board meeting at Cedar Springs High School Monday evening. It was scheduled for the auditorium in order to accommodate a large crowd. About 200 people also attended that meeting, and made their feelings known about the mask mandate during public comment time. Many of them told stories about their children developing fear, anxiety, and other health issues over having to wear a mask. And many pleaded for the board to stand up to the mandate and said the crowd would stand behind them.

The board discussed the issue during board communications. Board President Reed said she had been in contact with the Sparta Board President, and they would collaborate with them. “People might feel they’ve been unheard, but they have, and there is activity going on,” she said.

According to Superintendent Scott Smith, online learning is not an option this year for those who don’t want to mask up. He said that they did a survey earlier this year on it and the results showed very few wanted it. “It took us four months last year to develop it, and it had minimal satisfaction. Turning on Zoom and having a meeting with adults is doable, but turning it on and interacting with 5, 11, and 15 year-olds is not a good viable solution,” he said. He also added that if they went virtual, the days wouldn’t count this year.

“That widens the scope of what they’ve put us under,” said Reed.

Smith said KISD knows they are not happy. “They know we are not happy. We met for two hours on Friday.”

The board urged that they continue to pursue other options.

State legislators are also weighing in on the issue after their offices were flooded with calls. Four from the State House of Representatives sent a letter earlier this week to Adam London basically telling him he’s overstepped his bounds as an unelected official, and his decision to reverse his stance on mask mandates just before the start of school and after boards had made their decisions, has caused confusion and division. 

“We respectfully request you reconsider your decision and leave it to those who should be making it — local school boards and parents, working in tandem with their communities and local health officials. We must trust the public to make these types of decisions for themselves,” they wrote. It was signed by Rep. Mark Huizenga, Rep. Bryan Posthumus, Rep. Steve Johnson, and Rep. Thomas Albert.

The Kent County Commissioners have also been hearing from their constituents, and asking for them to vote on asking Dr. London to reverse the mandate. A Kent County Commissioner’s School mask, Public Health Order work session will be held at 10 a.m. at DeVos Place, Steelcase Ballroom. Enter the Steelcase Ballroom via the Lyons Street exit. Adam London will be there virtually to discuss the public health order, and there will also be time for public comments.

Due to public interest on this subject and for resident convenience, this meeting will be livestreamed on the County’s YouTube page at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCS3mshAB5mUwzPpG98ZYXAw and on the home page of the County’s website at https://www.accesskent.com/. 

Kent County is not the only place where parents are upset. The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners held a meeting where hundreds of people came and filled overflow rooms, waiting six hours to publicly comment on their feelings about the mask mandate. Allegan County, Kalamazoo County, and Genesee County health departments have also issued mask mandates, and had a strong backlash from parents. The Allegan County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 to ask their health department to reverse the mandate, but that has not yet happened. 

The mask mandates have rippled across the state, causing people to keep their kids home, staff to resign, and schools to scramble to come up with ways to accommodate those who want to have a choice in the way their child learns at school—masked or not. 

The Post will continue to update this story, so stay with us for further info and an update on the the meeting at DeVos Place Thursday.

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