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Lack of mask mandates in schools worries some parents and teachers

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Across the state, school districts, teachers, parents, and kids are preparing for the highly anticipated transition back to school. After a year-and-a-half of virtual and hybrid classrooms, most school districts are planning to return to in-person instruction--with or without a mask.        In many districts across the state, masks are being labeled as "optional" or "highly recommended." With COVID numbers on the rise, and kids under 12 not eligible to receive the vaccine, the lack of a mask mandate has many parents and teachers concerned about their own safety as well as the health of their children and students.

Stateside spoke to Kylia Maksay, a mother of two young boys living in Oakland County, and Jill, a middle school teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools system, to gain perspective on how the lack of a clear mask mandate affects them.

For Maksay, the news that her son’s charter school wouldn’t be requiring masks this year came as a shock. Last year, she said she chose the school for her 5-year-old son specifically for its strict pandemic protocols--including universal mask-wearing. Recently, she received a letter stating that masks were encouraged, but optional, for the upcoming year.

“We felt so comfortable sending him [last year]. I had the feeling I would be sending him into the same environment for kindergarten, and then to have that switch, I was in disbelief,” said Maksay.

The decision whether or not to require masks in schools has been fiercely debated in recent weeks. School board meetings have turned into shouting matches while medical experts have called the decision to go without a mask mandate a ‘dangerous’ one. Jill’s district is declaring masks "strongly recommended," garnering pushback from both sides of the issue.

“School districts are also businesses, and they have to reflect what their customers want, so it kind of depends on who’s the loudest,” Jill explained.

While the mask debate has been largely split down party lines, the practical applications of the decision have a significant toll on parents. With a full-time job, no mask-requiring schools nearby, and limited virtual learning capabilities, Maksay worries that she will have to take drastic measures to provide her sons with a safe and positive education.

“We haven’t been able to find a school, a kindergarten, that requires masks,” said Maksay. “We would have to actually move, which isn’t an easy thing to do in two weeks and not an easy decision to make.”

For Jill, the reality of attending school without a mask mandate and hundreds of unvaccinated kids is “terrifying.”  With the start of classes drawing nearer, she said she’s worried about the potential consequences for her community.

“There’s a real chance that we will lose teachers and staff and students this year because of the virus,” she said. “If all you have to do to mitigate those circumstances is to put a piece of cloth on your face, it is beyond me why you wouldn’t do that.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Mary Claire Zauel.

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