GAYLORD — A small group of Gaylord High School students who refused to wear masks at the start of the school year this week snowballed into a sizable walkout of an estimated 75 people Thursday and Friday.
Some say they feel they’ve been lied to — by state and local officials who initially indicated that mask-wearing would be optional for students at the start of this year, and by school administrators, who reportedly assured them they wouldn’t be punished for protesting the rules, junior Fayth Sanom said. School officials have not replied to requests for comment.
Sanom said she and her fellow students plan to continue their noncompliance next week if nothing changes, despite reports that such actions could result in suspension, loss of class time, and the possibility of being barred from extracurricular activities. The latter could pose issues for the school’s football season, which is just now underway.
“Personally I think these repercussions are worth the risk if it makes the rest of our school year better,” Sanom said. “Nothing that’s worth it is going to be easy.”
Sanom was one of a handful of students who banded together last week following the Aug. 27 order by the Health Department of Northwest Michigan requiring students to wear masks at the start of the school year. Those directives came amid continued concerns surrounding the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant. In the lead-up to the mandate, cases of COVID-19 within the health department’s four-county jurisdiction increased 425%, from 102 cases in July to 536 in August.
When Sanom and her fellow protestors sat down for their first classes of the year Tuesday without wearing masks, Sanom said they were directed to the principal’s office. There, Principal Chris Hodges reportedly asked them if they were going to wear their masks. When they said they wouldn’t, they were placed in a separate detention room for the day, Sanom said.
Several attempts were made to contact Hodges on Thursday and Friday for the purposes of this article, but he has not responded as of the initial publication of this article.
The student group had grown by the following day, and had to be relocated to the school library. When they came in Thursday, they staged a sit-in in the school’s commons area and were asked to either put on their masks or exit the building. They refused until law enforcement was called, Sanom said.
No arrests were made.
The students who left the building — by now numbering about 75 — then assembled on Main Street in downtown Gaylord to continue their protest. When she was interviewed around midday Friday for this article, Sanom said the students had just finished another protest downtown.
Up to this point, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has encouraged local school districts to create their own mask requirements, despite statements from Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the state, advising that a mask mandate for K-12 schools would help keep children safe when they return to classrooms.
County commissioners in Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties who serve on the health department’s Board of Health issued a letter shortly after the health department’s ruling requesting it rescind the mask order.
In a letter, the Gaylord Community Schools board also took issue with the mask mandate, particularly objecting to the sudden announcement just before the beginning of the school year.
“Gaylord Community Schools worked diligently on our Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), taking into consideration not only the safety of our students and staff as a primary focus, but also the concerns and fears shared by so many staff and parents on both sides of the mask versus no mask debate,” the letter states. “We created a plan that was widely accepted, and to the extent possible without jeopardizing safety, met our community where they were at.”