Most SCCS students return to in-person learning, many face mask mandate

SWARTZ CREEK — Ninety-eight percent of Swartz Creek Community Schools students will return to some semblance of normalcy as their families have opted for in-person learning this academic year, but some still face mask mandates under a recent countywide order.

In August, Genesee County Medical Health Officer Dr. Pamela Hackert ordered that all county schools require masks for students and staff in kindergarten through 6th grade.

Nationwide, a mask mandate for bus drivers and passengers remains in effect.

Superintendent Ben Mainka told the school board last week that the administration has conducted extensive research and reached out to two law firms to determine the district’s obligations regarding the mandate.

“We have two opinion letters that essentially state we are under legal obligation to follow the Genesee County Health Department order,” Mainka said.

“We’re doing everything in our power to give parents choices while following the statutorily-required obligations. We’ve had a lot of questions and answered a lot of phone calls. It’s a hot topic around a lot of places. Our families and parents know we’re doing everything we can but … we’re trying to strike a healthy balance.”

Individual board members have divergent opinions about the masks.

Trustee Jack Sayer remarked, “I was going to come in here today and get fired up, potentially even go against the health department. Then I talked to Ben and, as much as I wanted to do that, it’s not a smart idea to put the district in that legal liability. It wouldn’t be smart of me as board member to do that.”

Sayer presented data from 2020, the last year for which complete numbers are available, showing there are 41 million students age 5 to 14 years old; of those, there have been 121 COVID deaths, 250 deaths from pneumonia and 79 from the flu.

“Of course, that’s terrible and we never want a single death in this age group,” he said. “In Michigan alone, there are 1.2 million students in this age group. In 2020, there were three COVID deaths, three pneumonia deaths, and four influenza deaths. While I’m not saying the COVID deaths mean nothing, what I am saying is pneumonia deaths and influenza deaths are right up there with them for this age group.”

He called the mandate a “power grab,” and said the health department is using it COVID to scare parents.

“I wanted to make it clear to our parents that I think this is wrong,” Sayer said.

Trustee Alicia Gardner, a nurse, said the mask mandate is not the school board’s decision to make.

“We are not the health experts; despite my professional expertise, I am not a health expert when I sit in this seat,” she said. “The oath we took was to uphold our duty as elect officials. I hope you all, as I will, commit to follow the law.

“It is our American-given right, our God-given right, to have an opinion. But it is not our right in this seat to go against the letter of the law and put this district at risk. It doesn’t really matter, in my opinion, what any of us think, that’s our obligation.”

She urged people to remember the thousands who have fallen ill to COVID and continue to suffer from long-term illness and disability.

Mainka noted that the pandemic has taught school officials a lot about protecting staff and students from illness.

“Certainly, we won’t allow anyone to come in if they’re sick,” he said. “Three to four years ago, I’d say rub some dirt on it and come on in. But we really don’t want children who are sick in the buildings. That’s not even a COVID thing, it’s something we’ve learned.”