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Health

Christian school says parents can write "medical" mask exemptions for their kids

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Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash
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It was Sunday, August 22, and the board at NorthPointe Christian Schools in Grand Rapids was holding an urgent evening meeting. Just two days earlier, the Kent County Health Department issued an mask order for pre-K through 6th grade students and staff, unless they had a “medical reason confirmed in writing from a Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) currently licensed to practice medicine in the State of Michigan.”  

  

Until then, NorthPointe, a private school boasting “100% Christian staff” and full-time tuition ranging from about $7,500 for kindergarten and just under $10,000 for high schoolers, told families masks would be optional “but welcome at all campuses.” 

A little after 8 p.m. Sunday night, head of schools Todd Tolsma and board president Jeffrey Keessen sent an “important update” to families: after “much prayerful thought and consideration,” NorthPointe would allow parents to write a “medical” exemption for their own kids. 

“As a school we believe that no one knows what their child needs physically, spiritually, socially and emotionally better than the parent,” the email read. “That is why you chose NorthPointe Christian Schools. NorthPointe Christian will enact the KCHD mask order, but also will accept a parent’s or guardian’s written representation stating that your child is not wearing a face covering because they cannot medically tolerate a face covering. This includes the consideration for a child’s mental health.”

Neither Tolsma nor Keessen responded to requests for comment Monday.

 

The email also reiterated the school's plans for keeping students safe.  

"...[W]e will encourage families who have students with symptomatic illness to keep them at home. We will quarantine anyone with Covid and contact trace to determine close contacts. We have air purifiers in each classroom. We will continue to regularly disinfect each classroom and all community areas. We will teach and practice regular and thorough hand washing. We still have hand sanitizer in each classroom and in public areas."

But at least one NorthPointe parent was worried. “Prior to receiving this letter, we expressed our concern to them about the mask policy. The board said, ‘We understand, we’re trying to keep a balance, there are parents on both sides of the issue.’ And...when they came out with the health department orders, we breathed a sigh of relief,” said the parent, who asked not to be named because their kids still go to the school. 

“People can disagree on different matters, but once things are in place legally, you have to abide by the orders that are given. They’re backed up by research, backed up by studies, and more due diligence than me and the research I can do on my phone sitting on the couch.”

Unsure what to do, the parent said they called the sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s department directed them to the health department, which still hadn’t returned the parent’s voicemail as of Monday afternoon. 

That’s because they’re getting a lot of these calls right now, said KCHD spokesman Steve Kelso. 

“The health department was aware of it,” he said. “I checked in with our folks, and they’d heard of some of this. And they’re hearing it from other schools too...And we’re getting calls from people, too, of noncompliance and that kind of thing.”

But it’s too soon to say what, if any, enforcement actions the county health department will take. Right now, county health officials are having “internal discussions” with the county’s corporate counsel, Kelso said.

“We're working through that. And it's going to be a complicated process and it's going to involve our legal team. And I don't think it's far enough down the road for me to really say anything about it at this point.” 

Asked if health officials would be following up with schools about reports of noncompliance via phone, letter, or legal action, Kelso said, “we’re exploring what are those things that we can do.”

“We knew this [noncompliance] was a possibility,” Kelso said. “...So, you know, certainly we're working on it. We're looking at it. It's just too, too early for me to say where we are right now. Again, sorry. I just don't know.”

A turbulent environment for schools, parents and kids 

Things have been tense in Kent County the past week.

On Thursday, hundreds of people came out to a raucous, confrontational Kent County Board of Commissioners meeting to voice their feelings about the mandate. Kent County Health Officer Adam London spoke to attendees virtually, citing “aggression and threats” against health administrators. “I’m sure many of you have come here to demand my termination,” London said, to which the crowd cheered so loudly, the commission had to pause the meeting and ask the crowd for “respect.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B74L6hRLgW0&t=2619s

“Eight hundred and eight Kent County residents have died from COVID-19,” London said. "We are now averaging 124 new COVID cases every day...we now have 94 people hospitalized in Kent County for COVID-19, including two kids who are in intensive care right now.”

Several times, London had to pause because the crowd was yelling so loudly. 

“Here in Kent, we’re seeing the number of new cases amongst kids under 10 years old increase into the number one age bracket, with 21% of all new cases being in that youngest age bracket,” London said. “As of last week, the U.S. was averaging over 1,200 kids per day in hospitalized beds. This is the highest average daily number of hospitalized kids our nation has seen during the entire pandemic.” 

After London’s presentation, County Commissioner Tom Antor said he had great personal respect for London, but, “some people would say you don’t really have a role in making decisions for parents on something,” Antor said to loud cheers and applause. 

“My question to you is simple: if the science is this concrete, if there’s no wiggle room, if this is absolutely the only way this can go down based on your opinion, why is it so many other health departments around the state and around the country are doing just the opposite: they’re not mandating?” Antor said, citing Wayne County, which hadn’t issued a similar mandate at the time. 

(The Wayne County Health Department did, however, issue an order the next day, August 27, mandating masks for students and staff from pre-k through 12th grade.) 

“I hope you’re looking at all these pissed off, voting mama bears in this room,” said Elizabeth Johnson of Cedar Springs. “We’ve heard a lot of BS about how scary COVID is...Where are the makeshift hospitals? Where are the overrun hospitals? There’s not an epidemic...Mr. London, you have no legal leg to stand on.” 

Micah Jones, a high school student from Kentwood, said she and her 4th grade sister were thankful for the mandate. Last year had been hard, she said, but now they were able to go back to in-person school. 

“This mask mandate helps our learning environment be void of dangers, and we are able to learn in a safe environment,” she said, reading from a written statement. In her AP Government class, Jones said they learned “you can have an opposing view with someone, but that doesn’t mean you have to yell and shout.” This country was “built on unity. It’s in the name,” she said. But the crowd jeered and booed as she took her seat.  

Other speakers described the mandate as a  “medical experiment” being “put on the backs of our children.” One man told the crowd to “stand up” against the mask mandate. “You do not comply!” he yelled. “You do not comply!” 

A mother said she’d pulled her children out of a Christian school, after they told her they had to comply with the county’s order “or they could chain our doors like Libertas,” a private Christian school in Ottawa County that went to court over the statewide mask mandate last year. 

“Every day my child came home with headaches, unable to function at night, and anxiety,” she said. “This needs to stop and we all know that. Us parents are at a point where we will no longer subject our children to Adam London’s…” she trailed off. 

“Tyranny!” several in the crowd cheered. “Yes, tyranny,” she agreed. 

This is the environment schools, including private ones like NorthPointe that depend on tuition dollars, are navigating. And they are begging for calm and civility. 

“We have since heard from many impassioned people on both sides of the mask issue,” the school’s email to families said. “We will continue to seek counsel in this matter moving forward. We ask as a community, that we not allow this to divide us. We have worked too hard together to get through this, and may we truly love one another, no matter what side of this issue we are on.”

 

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