CLIMAX TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Climax-Scotts Community Schools has said masks are highly recommended and not required, going against the county’s public health order.
The Kalamazoo Health and Community Services Department last week issued a public health order requiring masks indoors for all staff and students in kindergarten through sixth grade buildings.
During a board meeting Monday night, Climax-Scotts schools decided to not require masks, basing its decision in part on its proximity to Calhoun County, where the coronavirus numbers are lower. The district also said it considered “how masks inhibit learning for young students.”
“This is a difficult decision in an ever-changing environment. We appreciate the passionate opinions on both sides,” Climax-Scotts Community Schools said in a statement to News 8.
A Climax-Scotts spokesperson said they will continue to monitor the situation in the district and has been communicating with the county health department. District administrators say they will continue to have distancing, touch point minimizing and additional cleaning measures in place. They said smaller class sizes allow for more space among staff and students.
While this may be welcoming news to those against the mandate, Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School professor Brendan Beery, J.D., says this defiance against the mandate in Kalamazoo County is against state law.
“A public health official is higher than a public school district when it comes to these measures designed to curb an epidemic,” Beery said.
Michigan State Public Health Code Chapter 333, Section 2453 says:
“If a local health officer determines that control of an epidemic is necessary to protect the public health, the local health officer may issue an emergency order to prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose and may establish procedures to be followed by persons, including a local governmental entity, during the epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws.”
“There is very little chance that a state court or federal court’s going to say that a school district can just do its own thing, given the expressed language of the statute,” Beery said.
The statute was used in a federal court ruling against Libertas Christian School, which was temporarily closed by the Ottawa County Health Department last October after refusing to comply with the local mask mandate. Given Climax-Scotts’s decision, legal precedent may force a change in plans for this district.
“Courts do not consider individual freedoms to be absolute,” Beery explained. “Even if a court finds that you do have a certain freedom … a fundamental right to do something, the government can overcome that by showing that it’s doing something that is necessary to preserve your health.”
The Kalamazoo County health department also released a statement:
“Kalamazoo County Health & Community Services Department is aware of the decision that Climax-Scotts came to regarding the mask mandate. We are currently in the process of discussing this issue with them,” Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford said in a statement to News 8.
Additional details regarding the discussions, including possible steps they could take moving forward, are unclear at this time.