Parents, community members protest mask mandate in Berrien County schools

BUCHANAN — Tuesday morning, the sidewalk in front of Buchanan High School was decorated with signs saying “unmask our kids,” “let parents choose how to parent,” and “freedom over fear” as community members and parents protested a newly effective mask mandate in schools.

Organized through the Berrien County Parents for School Freedoms Facebook group, parents and community members hosted protests outside Berrien County high schools Tuesday morning. The protests came in response to a mask mandate issued by the Berrien County Health Department that went into effect Monday, which requires all school students and staff to wear masks indoors. The mandate allows exceptions for those actively eating and drinking, children under the age of 4, neurodivergent students and those who have a medical reason confirmed by a doctor.

“Our top priority is keeping students in school for in-person learning. With the rapid increases in COVID-19 transmission over the past month, it is imperative that we take this action to keep students and teachers healthy and safe in the classroom,” said Courtney Davis, acting health officer for the Berrien County Health Department in a statement to the media last week. “While we are still learning about the potential impacts of the highly contagious Delta variant that is present in Berrien County, what we do know is that masking is one of the best defenses against COVID-19 transmission.”

According to a report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, COVID-19 can cause serious illness in children and adolescents. From June to August, weekly COVID-19-associated hospitalizations among children nationwide rose nearly five-fold. The CDC recommends that children under the age of 12 wear masks in indoor spaces, while everyone over the age of 12 be vaccinated, as hospitalizations among adolescents were 10 times higher in unvaccinated individuals than those who were fully vaccinated.

Despite recommendations from the Berrien County Health Department and the CDC, many county parents disagree that mask mandates have a place in the schools.

Tuesday, Buchanan High School was one of several high schools across Berrien County host to a protest against the mandate.

One parent who chose to attend the protest was Ashley Glidden, who has a first-grader in Buchanan schools.

“I feel like our freedoms are being stepped over and the government is overreaching,” she said. “I don’t think that a health department or a school system has the right to choose whether my child can breathe free air or not.”

Glidden said she opposed masks in schools both because they distract her children from learning and because she believes it is unhealthy for her child to wear a mask all day every day.

“[My child] had to wear a mask all last year, and I would pick her up from school, and she would be a sweaty mess, struggling to breathe,” she said.

Also in attendance Tuesday were Richard and Wendy Chapman, parents of three Buchanan students in fourth, sixth and eighth grade. They said they believed the mask mandate was unconstitutional and that it had negatively impacted their children.

“I happen to be someone who is immunocompromised, but I still think the mask mandate is garbage,” Wendy Chapman said. “I don’t think it is anyone else’s responsibility to keep me safe. That’s my personal responsibility. We all have a choice — to stay home, to wear a mask, to not wear a mask, and I don’t want to see that choice taken away from anybody. If someone chooses to wear a mask, I respect that, but they have the choice to do that.”

Last year, the Chapmans withdrew their children from Buchanan schools due to the mask mandate but chose to allow them to return this year as they believed no mask mandate would be put in place. Should the mandate remain in place, they said they would consider again withdrawing their children from public school.

While Berrien County Health Department officials said they were aware of and respected Tuesday’s protests, they said masking in schools was a way to protect students and staff while prioritizing classroom-based learning.

“The Berrien County Health Department respects our residents’ rights to peacefully gather and express their opinion regarding the recent public health order requiring masks in educational settings,” said Communications Manager Gillian Conrad. “As the local public health agency serving Berrien County, we will continue to promote the science and data as well as accurate information about COVID-19. With sustained high transmission in our community, it is critical that we are taking all the steps we can to slow the spread of the virus. Using the layered mitigation strategies, such as wearing masks when in indoor public places, staying home when sick and continuing to practice good hand hygiene will help prevent infections within our school communities.”

While parents at Tuesday’s protest in Buchanan said they were not sure if their attendance would change the health department’s stance, they believed it was important to make their voices heard.

“I hope this shows our kids that we are willing to fight for them and that they learn that they need to fight and stand up for their rights as well,” Glidden said. “If they don’t see their own parents stand up for them, then they will never learn to stand up for themselves. We are here to make a statement and hopefully make a change.”

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