County Medical Health Officer Pamela Hackert told attendees she imposed the requirement only on those lower grades because she wanted to provide protection to students who do not yet have the option of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. She stated further that higher transmission levels could lead to a broader school mandate.
From August 12th through August 18th, the most recent time period for which Genesee County provided data, the county has recorded 41 COVID infections in patients ages zero to 11 and 28 cases in those aged 12 to 17. Among those, one has been hospitalized.
Commissioner Charles H. Winfrey (D-District 2) presided over Monday’s meeting in the absence of Board Chair Mark Young (D-District 5). Only Winfrey and the Board’s two Republican commissioners, Shaun Shumaker (District 6) and Meredith Davis (District 7), were present. The failure of any of the six others to attend the meeting deprived the Board of a quorum required to undertake any official business.
The two GOP commissioners echoed many attendees’ concerns as to whether masking provides significant protection against the novel coronavirus. Davis said she was unassured by the sight of many mask-wearers touching the insides of their masks or temporarily leaving them on common surfaces.
“How do we expect five-year-olds, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds to properly use these masks and be protected?” Davis asked Hackert. “I find them doing more harm than good. There’s bacteria on them.”
Hackert responded that, despite the behaviors Davis mentioned, the key effect of masks on COVID spread is “source control,” i.e., preventing respiratory droplets from a mask wearer reaching someone else. She said that COVID is rarely spread via surfaces alone.
Davis countered by citing industrial hygienist Stephen Petty who has asserted that COVID-19 particles are small enough to get through most masks, a suggestion with which Hackert said she disagreed. The health officer also said she believes in the utility of cloth masks, whose effectiveness has been questioned by a recent University of Waterloo study that advises using tight-fitting N95 masks instead.
The commissioner then asked Hackert if she has any view of the long-term effects of children spending much of their time learning and socializing while masked. Hackert merely responded that “there are many, many children who have worn masks for months, if not years,” citing children who suffer from cancer.
Dozens of residents addressed the matter during public comment, the overwhelming majority of them opposed to a mask mandate, despite Genesee County’s heavily leftward political tilt. Several discussed their worry about possible psychological harm to students.
One woman from Davison said she witnessed firsthand the social alienation that masks and distancing have caused among many young people since the spring of last year when her daughter expressed suicidal thoughts.
“It is my duty to protect my child,” she said. “Dr. Hackert, your mask mandate puts my child in harm’s way. I’m asking you to allow the parents to decide whether they want it to be a virus that they are afraid of or the consequences of wearing a mask long-term.”
Laurie Cole, a piano teacher from Clio, mentioned a Brown University study that has attributed lower scores on cognitive tests in babies born during the pandemic to changes in social environments. She suggested that such findings should give pause to those who would alter learning environments for children a few years older.
“How are children supposed to learn phonics and reading when they and their teacher have a mask on?” Cole said. “Not to mention, children need the compassionate smiles and approval and human kindness from their teachers and their peers.”
Some research on masks has indicated they pose disadvantages to communicating thoroughly. A study by Claus-Christian Carbon, a psychologist at the University of Bamberg in Germany, has determined that “lower accuracy and lower confidence in one’s own assessment of… emotions [displayed during ones mask use] indicate that [observers’] emotional reading was strongly irritated by the presence of a mask.”
“The main thing most of these parents are concerned with is the anxiety and the stress on their children,” Shumaker said.
Hackert did get some support from a few public commenters, among them Flint resident Arthur Woodson.
“The question here is: Do we want the positivity rate to go up to [a point] where they shut down the schools and [have] your kid be at home?” Woodson said. “And once they do that, now you’re going to be protesting down at the capital. Why not put something in place that can keep the positivity rate down so that our kids can go to school?”
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