TRAVERSE CITY – For Lindsay Perry, the decision to withdraw her son from personal school came early in the year.
Perry’s son Salem attended Bridgeway, a NorthEd program for students with autism, last year and the first few weeks of this school year. He has autism and epilepsy, Perry said, and he is not fully vaccinated because of his sensory problems and fear of needles.
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In late September, Perry, who himself has a weakened immune system, withdrew Salem from personal school.
“The panic and the fear that he was directly exposed so many times last year, and then knowing that eventually (the mask mandate) will be lifted this year, I would not risk it,” Perry said. “It was not worth his health, my health, to reveal the whole family. It just was not worth it. “
Salem is now taking classes online, which is “very, very stressful,” Perry said. She quit her job to be at his home and she worries about the lack of socialization he gets.
“It causes him a little bit of social anxiety when we have to go places,” Perry said. “He does not get the normality of breaks and excursions, gym classes.”
As federal, state, and local public health policies shift from mandates to dependence on personal responsibility across states, some are still at risk of contracting a serious COVID infection to bear a heavier burden to protect their families and themselves.
In northern Michigan, rollbacks of mask mandates came at about the same time as they did in states like New Jersey and Delaware. In February, Lisa Peacock, health worker at the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department and Health Department of Northwest Michigan, announced that her health department’s K-12 mesh mandate would expire in mid-February.
This decision meant that public school districts of Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties would no longer have a mask mandate. Traverse City Area Public Schools, which are not under the jurisdiction of any of the health departments, were also implemented after its administrators had put their mask mandate on BLDHD’s.
Prior to Peacock’s decision in February, a majority of students in NorthEd (the region’s middle school district) went to school under a mask mandate. Now almost no one does.
People across the United States are in a similar position to Perry and her family. According to CDC website7 million adults in the United States are immunocompromised and at risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID. The website does not have statistics on immunocompromised children.
Newspapers, such as Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times, has covered the struggles that high-risk individuals across states, from California to Missouri to Philadelphia, face now that the rhetoric around COVID measures has changed. They tell that they feel angry, angry and abandoned. Some have hardly seen anyone outside their families or health care providers during the pandemic.
When the mask mandate was dropped in February, Perry was also considering pulling her daughter Riley out of personal school, but she has stayed at West Middle School under their agreement that she would always wear a mask.
Riley struggled with virtual school last year, Perry said, and it would have been too difficult for her to support both Riley and Salem during online classes. Plus, Perry did not want Riley to miss socializing as a middle school student.
The pandemic has been mentally and emotionally exhausting, Perry said. She is tired of having to adjust her and her children’s lives because of it.
Others who complain about the hassle of masking or other COVID precautions without considering the impact on high-risk individuals appear selfish, Perry said.
“If I got COVID, it would really, really affect me because of my compromised immune system,” Perry said. “It could really, really affect my son.”
Holly T. Bird pulled her son out of personal school a few months into the school year.
Bird’s son, who is immunocompromised, spent last year fighting in online classes. He ended up failing a couple of them, which he then had to make up for over the summer. School felt much harder and there seemed to be more work online, Bird said.
He returned to TC West Senior High School this year, but when Bird found out that TCAPS no longer wanted a mask mandate, she began looking for online programs that he could sign up for again. She fears a repeat of last year and how her son’s mental health will be affected, but the physical health risks are not worth him going back to school, she said.
Bird, whose household has San Felipe Pueblo members and citizens of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and the Chippewa Indians, said she was not surprised by the February decision on masking. She has heard from many people that they are tired of following pandemic protocols.
“It really feels like there’s a lack of compassion and understanding for people in these situations,” Bird said. “We live in a society where people can afford to do these things, and people may have the ability to make better choices to help people around them, and they naturally choose their own convenience.”
However, a Maple City mother whose son has an autoimmune disease is happy to see worm mandates fall.
Karen Dezelski’s son Drew is a junior at Glen Lake Community Schools. He has rheumatoid arthritis and he has had COVID twice. He is not vaccinated because of his autoimmune disease, she said.
Both times he tested positive for COVID, Drew had only one stuffy nose, Dezelski said.
Dezelski has been against mask mandates since the beginning of the pandemic because she does not believe masks are effective. With the mask mandate at her son’s school now gone, Dezelski is looking forward to getting “back to normal,” especially for young children, she said.
“Everyone just needs to calm down and take care of their own,” Dezelski said.
Dr. Stephanie Galdes, a pediatrician at Kids Creek Children’s Clinic, would have preferred the mask mandates to last a few weeks longer, but recent low hospitalization rates and positivity rates indicate the community is a good place to go without mandates, she said.
For high-risk students, Galdes still recommends wearing a mask because it provides a layer of protection. There are other mitigating efforts that parents and society can use to protect high-risk students, she said, including being vaccinated when justified, hand washing and staying home from school when they are ill.
“The mask that is worn is part of the image, but it is not the whole image at all, especially in an environment where most other people do not wear a mask,” Galdes said.
It is also important to consider the social element when discussing mandates, Galdes said.
“I think everyone needs a break from this,” Galdes said. “We would definitely see less spread of infection if everyone was masked and we were at a distance … but you also have to balance some of it with social mental health. And then it’s hard.”
As of Friday afternoon, there were 36 COVID patients at Munson hospitals across the region, according to Munson’s website, and about 2,500 active COVID cases in Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Emmet, Otsego, Charlevoix and Antrim counties, according to each county health department website.
The positivity rate in each of these counties is less than 10 percent according to the MI Safe Start Map.
In the past week, the Grand Traverse County positivity rate, although still below 10 percent, appears to have risen a few percentage points, Galdes said. She said she hopes there will be a continuous conversation about mask mandates as COVID cases and positivity rates ebb and flow in the area.
A few weeks ago, Bird and her immediate family reunited with members of their extended family. Afterwards, they found out that someone had tested positive for COVID.
Fortunately, her immediate family was wearing masks, Bird said, even though no one else was.
People close to Bird have died of COVID. Others she knows suffer from Long COVID. Around the time the school’s mask mandate fell, she knew a 5-year-old who had to be hospitalized because of COVID.
All of these things have made her more cautious when it comes to viruses, she said.
“I just do not think we are there yet. And I think the burden has shifted to the most vulnerable people in our society to continue trying to ward off this virus,” Bird said. “But it’s like a heavier burden this time.”