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Education

Kalamazoo County implemented a mask mandate for K-6 students. Here's what some parents think

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Kalamazoo Public Library
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Keeping COVID-19 related disruptions out of the classroom will be a big focus for educators and administrators this school year. With no statewide mask mandate in place for K-12 schools for the coming school year, local officials will be largely responsible for deciding what COVID-19 preventative measures will be put in place.

The Kalamazoo County Health Department announced last week that it would implement a mask mandate for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Allegan, Genesee, Kent, and Ottawa Counties have issued similar K-6 mask mandates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently designates Kalamazoo County as having a high level of community transition, the highest level. The mandate put out by the county acknowledges that designation, and also points to a 10% COVID test positivity rate as factors for putting the mandate into effect (at the time of this article, the county had a seven day positivity rate of 11.2%).

Angela Gross lives in Kalamazoo, and is a parent to two kids enrolled in Kalamazoo Public Schools. (The district had already said that it would mandate masks earlier this year.) Her older daughter is vaccinated, but her younger son isn't old enough to be eligible for the shot.

"We do know that masks keep people safe. We do know that it protects both the wearer and the people around the person wearing the mask. We know that a huge group of kids cannot get vaccinated because of their age. And we also know that people that are eligible for the vaccine—many of them have chosen not to get vaccinated. So I am personally very happy to see the Kalamazoo County Health Department issue a mask mandate, especially for that more vulnerable group who can't be protected by the vaccine," she said.

Dawn DeLuca also has two kids enrolled at KPS. She says she was heartened by the district's original mask mandate, and feels good about the county's mask mandate as well. Like Gross, her younger child isn't yet eligible to receive a COVID vaccine. DeLuca says she feels fortunate to have her kids in KPS, and that she's confident that educators and staff will make sure the kids are staying safe.

"I feel safe, I know teachers will make sure the kids are doing what they need to do to keep each other safe through masking and social distancing and all of those things, so I don’t fear that. What I do fear is more chronic instability," she said, referring to the possibility of her kids having to switch to virtual school and back to in-person all over again. "The thought of like, will this will this cycle ever end or is this just what life is now?"

Gross echoed DeLuca's sentiment about the uncertainty 0f vacilating from virtual to in-person schooling—and what might happen should there be an outbreak in her kid's school. 

"The unknowns and the uncertainty that we've been living with, those aren't going away. And so, you know, I imagine my daughter, she's vaccinated. She'll wear her mask. Could she still get COVID? She could. Could you bring it home? She could. And we still have an unvaccinated member of the family! So I worry about those things," she said.

DeLuca says the divisiveness of the issue of masks in schools is confusing to her, when the science is clear that masks help prevent the spread of COVID.

"I am frustrated with how teachers and administrators and those in decision making positions have been vilified through those decisions when they don't when parents don't get the decision that they want," she said.

Gross agrees, and says it's necessary for public health officials to make these tough decisions to keep kids safe.

"I am glad that it's the public health officials that are making this mandate, and I think it's them that should shoulder the public health responsibilities and burdens and guidance and mandates," she said, adding that most school administrators and superintendents are not public health experts, and are under a great deal of pressure from parents already. "I prefer in this very politicized virus with a very politicized masks, that people in public health make those calls and, you know, maybe take the heat. I'm super on the side of follow the science, trust the public health experts. And, yes, let's have them make those calls that will require people to be safe and to care about the safety of those around them."

Ultimately, DeLuca wants her community to remember that each family is struggling to adjust to the new normal—building a plane as you're flying it, as she says. There simply is no manual for how do to school in a pandemic, and no one-size-fits-all option for every family.

"I really wish we were all able to come together and just be supportive and understand that we're all in this together. You know, we're much stronger together, but the divisiveness is just not productive," she said. As for parents that oppose mask mandates, she said, "I do believe that no one is out there trying to hurt other people. I do believe people have taken a stand for some conviction or some some personal belief system, and they're just going to they're just going to hold to it." But she's frustrated that masks, which she sees as a simple way to keep her community safe from the virus, have been so politicized.

Gross also expressed concern for the health and safety not just of her family, but the larger community in Kalamazoo.

"None of us live in a vacuum. What I do regarding this virus and masks and vaccines does affect people that I live with, that I work with, that I shop in the store next to... So yeah, it is a personal decision and concern for my family’s health and safety, but it goes beyond that for me," Gross said.

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