Parents rallying in Macomb and Oakland Counties on Wednesday don’t agree on masks, but they do share one, overarching feeling going into a new school year: anger.
In the morning, more than 200 parents acted swiftly in protesting against a new countywide mask mandate in front of Oakland County’s health division in Pontiac.
Across town in the evening, in front of Macomb County’s Health Department in Mount Clemens, about three dozen parents rallied in support of a county mask mandate, which Macomb County officials said was unlikely.
“There are some county health departments that are stepping in and making decisions on behalf of the schools, but again here in Macomb County we have been working almost daily with our schools and our superintendents, trying to get an understanding of where their boards are at,” Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said during a video address on Wednesday.
State, school and county leaders for weeks have been the subject of will-they-won’t-they speculation over mask mandates, perpetuating confusion over whether such orders should be up to individual school districts, state health officials or county health officials.
Pamela Pugh, vice president of Michigan’s State Board of Education, attended the protest in Macomb in support of a mandate. She said politicking in Lansing has created an uneven approach to mask mandates, largely decided by counties or school boards.
“The governor has said that she and the Legislature have made a decision to act together to not protect the children,” she said.
Through the uncertainty, vitriol and anger has emerged in school board meetings and elsewhere. A pair of Genesee County health officials received death threats this week after announcing a mask mandate for thousands of students in the county.
Medical Health Officer Pamela Hackert and Genesee County’s Deputy Health Officer Kayleigh Blaney were threatened earlier this week, Blaney told the Free Press on Wednesday. She declined additional comment.
Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton confirmed his office is involved in an investigation and someone is in custody. He declined further comment.
Macomb County protest
Standing quietly with signs and wearing masks, Macomb County parents and students urged county health officials to order all schools to mandate masks among students and staff members. Their signs read “reduce the risk,” “spread kindness not COVID” and other messages.
Alison Zanella is the mom of four children who attend schools in the Utica School District, which has not issued a mandate. Three of her children have a progressive neuromuscular disease and she worries that her children could lose mobility if they were to contract COVID-19.
The last month, she said, has been “traumatizing.” The school district has not heeded her pleas for a mask mandate.
“We keep getting the response that if … we’re so worried about them that they should just do virtual school and they should just stay home,” she said. “But they have every right to be in school and have a normal childhood.”
Hailey, an 11-year-old student in St. Clair Shores, told protesters that because she’s too young to receive the vaccine, she wants the added protection of masks while attending school.
“I feel the right thing to do is mandate masks,” she said.
Oakland County protest
Earlier, protesters in Oakland County said decisions about wearing masks should be left to one group: parents.
“It has crushed my children’s spirit, and it might sound trivial to others, but this is my… my children’s mental health,” said Leslie Papastefanou, a mother of two from Highland Township.
The protest, promoted by the Oakland County Republican Party on Facebook, raged for hours on Wednesday, beginning at 8 a.m. with people still parking their cars to join the crowd at 10 a.m. Protesters mainly rallied in front of the Health Division building in the massive county complex off Telegraph Road.
Some yelled, “My child, my choice!” as they circled the building. Another woman with a megaphone urged on protesters in an effort to disrupt the workday for health officials, yelling, “They’re getting mad in there.”
As temperatures rose near 80 degrees in the sunshine, some families who brought children moved them to a more shaded, grassy area.
Oakland County parents in support of masks had planned to rally at 5 p.m. at the same location, but canceled their protest after the mandate came down on Tuesday.
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