Following failed vote, masks remain optional at Dowagiac schools

DOWAGIAC — Masks will remain optional for all Dowagiac Union Schools students and staff following a vote by the board of education Tuesday evening.

The Dowagiac Union Schools Board of Education called a special meeting to discuss its COVID-19 return to school plan. At the meeting, the board voted on whether to institute a mask mandate for elementary students, who are too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which is so far only approved for those ages 12 and over, and elementary staff. After much discussion from both sides of the issue, the mandate failed in a four to three vote, with school board members Ruth Ausra, Ron Jones and Ronda Sullivan in favor, and Brent Brewer, Carrie Freeman, Terry Groth and Tracey Hatcher against.

Prior to vote, district parents and staff filled the Performing Arts Center at Dowagiac Middle School to share their opinions on masks in schools. The public comment portion of the meeting was filled with emotion as several parents pleaded with school board members to continue with their current COVID-19 plan, which keeps mask wearing optional unless mandated by the health department.

Standing at a podium in front of the board, district mother of four Theresa Keller held up a mask with a hole torn through the center. She said her youngest, a child living with autism and learning disabilities, had chewed the hole in the mask the previous school year — something he did every day in order to breathe fresher air.

“That was his goal for the entire day — to chew a hole through his mask,” Keller said. “Imagine how much better he could have done if his goal was not to chew a hole through his mask. … I understand you have to follow the law, but if there was to be a vote, I hope that masks stay optional.”

Fellow parent Doug Palmer said that while believed both those for and against masks had children’s best interests in mind, he believed mask wearing inhibited student learning by pulling their focus away from their studies and keeping them from becoming familiar with and understanding facial expressions.

“Let’s leave it up to the parents,” he said. “Let’s not mandate masks when there are some who are not comfortable with it.”

Also advocating for parents’ rights to choose whether or not students wear masks was Beth Nate, mother of a district second grader.

“I feel like families should be able to make that decision on their own, not the board members,” she said. “If you guys have your own personal beliefs on whether or not masks should be worn, please have your family follow those, but do not mandate my family, or any other family in this district, follow your personal beliefs.”

Despite parent protests, masks were not without supporters. Justus Gage Elementary School volunteer Diane Barrett Curtis said she would not return to the classroom this year knowing that there are no masks or vaccination mandates for the students and teachers she works with.

“I’m sorry it has come to this,” she said. “I have a daughter who is immunocompromised dealing with melanoma. I don’t feel I can safely go to Justus Gage anymore and volunteer my time and be exposed to students.”

On the board, a mask mandate for elementary students and staff found vocal support in Treasurer Jones, who introduced the motion, and Vice President Ausra, who seconded.

Ausra pointed to worsening COVID-19 infection rates across the country to support the failed mandate as well as a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which stated that child hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are at an all-time high, with an average of 330 admitted to hospitals daily with COVID-19 from Aug. 20-26.

“I feel we should do everything in our power to protect our children,” Ausra said. “As school board members and community members, it is our job to make masks our priority. If you think COVID can’t happen to your child, you are wrong.”

Jones said he introduced the idea of a mask mandate in DUS elementary schools to protect students who do not have the option of getting a COVID-19 vaccine. According to the CDC, most new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are attributed to unvaccinated individuals.

Jones also said that Cass County’s low vaccination rate — 39 percent as of Tuesday morning, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services — puts students at increased risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. He said masks would provide additional protection to students should an outbreak occur in the schools.

“The board is concerned for the safety of our kids and our employees,” he said. “I want to protect the kids who don’t have a choice.”

Other board members said they would be against a mask mandate and would not support one unless mandated by the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department. As of Tuesday morning, the health department and the CDC have recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Secretary Terry Groth said that while he supported the option to mask, and encouraged his own child to do so, he would not force any other parent to do the same.

“I’m a school board member. I’m not a doctor,” Groth said. “We are not here to require health screenings. It should be optional unless the health department says otherwise. They are the health professionals.”

Though the mask mandate ultimately failed, President Sullivan concluded the discussion by reminding both the board and the audience that the district’s COVID-19 return to school plan and stance on masking could be revisited and that the district would continue to monitor COVID-19 numbers.

“We do have the option to reevaluate at any time,” she said.

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