Parents protest masks at Niles Community Schools Board of Education meeting

Published 4:03 pm Tuesday, September 21, 2021

NILES — The debate surrounding masks in Berrien County schools continued Monday.

Several parents spoke against masks in schools at the Niles Board of Education meeting Monday evening. The topic dominated the meeting’s public comment section, with parents asking board members to take a stand against masks.

The comments came in response to a mask mandate issued by the Berrien County Health Department. The mandate, which went into effect Sept. 6, 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.

According to Interim Health Officer Courtney Davis, the mandate was issued due to high rates of COVID-19 transmission in the county. In a statement released to the media earlier this month, Davis said masks in schools will help protect children from the spread of COVID-19 while prioritizing in-person learning.

“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,” Davis said in her statement. “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.”

The mandate has proved unpopular with many parents around the county, sparking protests and backlash at public meetings. Monday’s Niles Board of Education meeting was no different.

“This is bulls— to be honest with you,” said parent Scott Krueger, speaking before the board. “There are a lot of people who have voiced their opinions, and I’m not the only one feeling this way.”

High school parent Krystal McCully said she was concerned the masks were negatively impacting students by distracting them from learning and causing anxiety. She added that she believes the masks have harmed her child’s health.

“[My son] is on the soccer team. He started off the year loving school,” she said. “Now he is saying, ‘I don’t care. I don’t want any of it. Take me out of school.’”

During her public comment, resident Marla Shortman asked the board to make a vote of no confidence against the health department and Interim Health Officer Davis.

“Coronavirus is here to stay,” she said. “Are you going to allow our students to be masked forever? It’s time to stand up for them today.”

Outside the meeting room, several parents waited having been denied entry to the board meeting due to refusal to wear masks inside the school building. Though Superintendent Dan Applegate spoke with those who could not enter the building and shared their concerns with the board, those who were denied entry said they did not feel like they were heard.

“We wanted to share how we feel about masking the kids because I cannot imagine having my kids come here for six to eight hours and having a mask on,” said Rebecca McGrew, who attempted to attend Monday’s meeting with her husband, Ryan.

Though the couple does not have any children currently attending Niles Community Schools, they said they wanted to share their opinions on masking with the board as tax-paying residents.

“To not have access to a public building, a school board meeting about masks, when you can be in virtually any other place in the county without a mask just doesn’t make sense,” Ryan McGrew said.

Another resident who was denied entrance to the meeting was Ryan Candler, who has three children attending Niles Community Schools. He said he wanted to attend Monday’s meeting to share with the board how his son has particularly struggled with wearing masks.

Having never attended a school board meeting before, Candler said he did not believe he needed a mask to enter the building, and therefore did not bring one with him. However, when he attempted to enter the building, he was stopped by police.

“I wanted to be there and have my three minutes [of public comment],” Candler said. “I thought I deserved that.”

Niles is not the only district that has required masks inside its building at all times including during school board meetings. Last week, Lakeshore Public Schools in Stevensville canceled its board meeting after audience members refused to put on masks or leave the meeting.

After speaking with those who were denied access to the meeting, Applegate asked the board to consider a change in venue for its next meeting so more people could participate.

Following the meeting, Board of Education President Mark Wortham said the board is listening to parent concerns but does not have the authority to overrule a health department mandate.

“We hear them,” he said. “That is all l can say. We hear their requests.”