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The School Mask Debate Continues

John McNeill

Although the pandemic continues, Kalamazoo Public School officials say there haven't been any COVID-related problems - so far.

Cases of the "Delta" variant are cropping outside of the district's classrooms. But Kalamazoo Superintendent Rita Raichoudhuri says safety protocols are in place, "Our safety plan is working so far since we have not had any outbreaks. However, if we are not hyper-vigilant with screening at home and mask-wearing, for our a district our size, an outbreak is inevitable."

Raichoudhuri says there haven't been any serious problems getting students to wear face masks. She says a limited number of students have received mask waivers in special cases.  During the second week of the new school year, she says, "I saw very diligent mask compliance by our students. For students whose masks may have been pulled down a little bit under their nose, it just took a simple redirection and they were quickly compliant."

Raichoudhuri spoke on Thursday, September 9, as Kalamazoo School Board members held their first in-person meeting since the pandemic began in 2020.

County commissioners get complaints

Kalamazoo County commissioners are still getting complaints about a health department order requiring masks in area schools. The county's health officer says it is needed to help control the spread of COVID-19. But critics say the decision to wear masks or not should be left up to families. Republican County Commissioner Dale Shugars agrees, "This has divided our community. I've never seen this since 1990-something, and they're on both sides of the aisle."

But Democrats see the issue differently. Commissioner Monteze Morales is a COVID survivor. And fellow Democrat Fran Bruder-Melgar is a doctor who's treating patients with the virus. Both say they are standing by the mask mandate. Morales says, "It's disturbing to me to put out false propaganda as if this isn't a virus that you can catch." Bruder-Melgar adds, "When you're in a school, you're got the largest population of unvaccinated people in a closed space."

Kalamazoo County commissioners will consider a resolution at their next meeting formally supporting the health department's mask order. It's expected to pass along party lines with Democrats in the majority.

Some mask options available

Kalamazoo County’s health officer says there are options for parents with children who can’t wear masks all day at school. Jim Rutherford says waivers are available if kids complain about health problems caused by masks, but only if they get a doctor to verify a problem that is, "An affliction that prevents them from either emotionally or physically being able to wear a mask, but that would be determined by their pediatrician."

Rutherford also says some special needs children can be excused from wearing masks.

Rutherford says attorneys from the county and the State Attorney General's office want to know if two doctors are abusing the system for getting face mask waivers. "And that these physicians may be providing waivers without the child being a patient of that practice, or even without the physician actually seeing the student in person."

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