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Northwest Michigan school district bucks mask trend, repeals mandate

Kalkaska High School
Kalkaska Public Schools
Kalkaska High School

While many school districts in Michigan have been adding mask mandates as COVID-19 cases mount, a district in the northwestern part of the state is going the opposite direction.

Kalkaska Public Schools started the year without a mask requirement, but within weeks of welcoming students back to classes, superintendent Rick Heitmeyer had imposed one.

The district had 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Heitmeyer said, and more than 200 students — one-seventh of the district’s population — were quarantining because of exposure.

Heitmeyer said a mask mandate was the district's answer to that immediate spike in cases.

But the rule lasted less than a week. The school board overturned it at their next meeting, despite the number of COVID-19 cases in the district almost doubling by then to 40.

Now, the district has no mask requirement, no quarantine requirement, and no coronavirus testing requirement.

All of those are mitigation measures recommended by health officials, and three separate studies published Friday by the federal Centers for Disease Control showed that school districts without mask requirements are hit harder by COVID-19 outbreaks than districts that do impose requirements.

But Heitmeyer said the Kalkaska district was facing students and parents who were incensed by the mandate.

“A lot of people who could possibly disrupt the system,” he said. “We want to educate all of our kids, and we want to do that in person. It’s not been an easy thing to maneuver, by any means.”

"The community really spoke up," said Heitmeyer. "At the end of the day, it was going to be difficult to enforce."

Kevin Hughes, the health officer for District Health Department No. 10, which covers Kalkaska and nine other counties, said the district risks seeding new COVID-19 outbreaks by holding in-person classes without masking or quarantining or testing.

But he said turning those recommendations into mandates would also carry a risk. People who already distrust public health workers could be driven even further into their opposition.

“Will they not follow guidance or recommendations on other things?” Hughes wondered. “Will it be that we’re going to see less and less people vaccinate their children for all the other diseases that we used to vaccinate for?”

In some places, like Kalskaska, Hughes worried, the backlash might be so strong that requiring masks or quarantine would be counterproductive, or even dangerous.

For Norm Hess, the question is not hypothetical. Hess is the head of the Michigan Association for Public Health, which represents all the state’s local health departments.

“We have had several incidents in the last couple of weeks where health officers have been physically threatened for doing the very thing they were hired to do,” Hess said. “Just yesterday we had a health officer in a public meeting where a citizen tried to arrest her.”

The health officer for Ingham County said she’s received death threats, and Kent County’s health officer said he was almost run off the road after announcing mask requirements last month.

Hess said public health departments aren’t cut out for this kind of hyper-partisan atmosphere. The best they can do, he said, is offer recommendations based on science, and hope the public heeds them.

Brett joined Michigan Public in December 2021 as an editor.
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