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Kent County lawmakers send second letter to health department urging reversal on school mask mandate

KCHD mandated masks for students pre-kindergarten through sixth grade last week. The letter states local school boards and parents should be making the decision.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — For the second time in a week, Republican state representatives in Kent County are urging the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) to not issue a mask mandate for schools. 

KCHD Director Adam London issued the mandate for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students in Kent County, in conjunction with Ottawa County, last week. 

The letter from representatives, released Tuesday, states: "It is abundantly clear that thousands of our constituents are gravely disappointed in your decision, announced late last week, mandating mask use in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade in school buildings throughout Kent County."

The letter was signed by representatives Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), Bryan Posthumus (R-Cannon Township) and Mark Huizenga (R-Walker).

Huizenga says the mask mandate decision is not a "one-size fits all situation." He believes the decision should be left to parents and local school boards. 

"We have urban districts here, we've got suburban districts, and we've got rural," said Huizenga. "I think it's disingenuous to say that we should just put a blanket order across the board for every school, especially when we know that schools are actually being very deliberate and diligent measuring things. And when the boards are following things, and taking a data-driven, evidence based perspective to keep their people safe, then we should respect that."

KCHD declined to comment on this letter. 

The four Republican lawmakers stated in the letter they will be attending the next County Board of Commissioners meeting on Aug. 26 to speak on the situation. 

The letter last week by the lawmakers threatened financial consequences if the department issued a mask mandate for schools. Part of the letter, which you can read more about here, said "We in the Legislature are willing to use the constitutional tools at our disposal — including the power of the purse — should a public health officer act outside the sphere of proper authority."

State Senator Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) called withholding funding for public health over the mask argument "unconscionable." 

"And though the wording is slightly different in this letter," said Brinks, "it does seem to be they are reiterating their threat."

Brinks said public health officers do what they believe is the right public health thing. They are an entity that makes decisions regardless of political pressures. 

"I think what we have is a classic case of a public health officer making a decision that he believes will save lives," said Brinks, "and we've got political conversations going on around him that put that ability at risk. So to me, it's just unconscionable that they would be questioning this at this moment when we see such a high rate of transmission from the new COVID variant right now in Kent County and surrounding areas."

Last week after the first letter was released, state representative David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) said in matters such as health, having an expert matters. The health expert in Kent County would be the director of the Public Health Department. 

"As far as I'm concerned, the health department is part of our public safety network," said LaGrand last week. "It keeps the public safe. I do not want to cut funding for public safety. I don't want to cut funding for any variety of public safety options. And it's strange to be in a space where we're talking about cutting, defunding public safety, over a mask mandate."

Friday, KCHD ordered the mask mandate for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. It came a week after concerned parents rallied for and against a formal mask mandate outside of the Kent County Health Department's office. 

RELATED: Parents at odds over mask recommendations in Kent County

“This was a necessary decision as we are seeing rapid increases in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant,” said Dr. London Friday. “It also appears as though this variant may be more likely to cause serious illness and hospitalization, so we need to take precautions to keep our children healthy and in school.”

RELATED VIDEO: Kent, Ottawa County Health Depts. order masks for all in Pre-K through 6th grade

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