Superintendents' letter calls for removal of student-athlete mask requirements during play

CENTREVILLE — A letter sent by seven area school district superintendents is calling for change to mask requirements for area student-athletes.

Sent to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday, Sept. 11, the letter calls on Whitmer to remove mask requirements during play for all student-athletes and reconsider aspects of two previous executive orders.

The letter was signed by Centreville Public Schools Superintendent Stephanie Lemmer, Three Rivers Community Schools Superintendent Ron Moag, Constantine Public Schools Superintendent James Wiseley, Sturgis Public Schools Superintendent Art Ebert, White Pigeon Community Schools Superintendent Carrie Errlandson, Mendon Community Schools Superintendent Leasa Griffith and White Pigeon Community Schools Superintendent Jon Keyer.

The letter comes as Whitmer on Sept. 3 signed Executive Order 176, which required masks for all organized sports except for swimming. On Sept. 9, Whitmer clarified those requirements with Executive Order 180, which mandates a face covering be worn at all times by "athletes training for, practicing for, or competing in an organized sports when the athlete cannot maintain 6 feet of social distance, except for occasional and fleeting moments."

Cross country, tennis and golf players are included in EO 180, which means they can go without masks if they can keep the six feet of social distancing. However, football, soccer and volleyball players are not.

The letter stated that while they believe Whitmer took a “positive step forward” by loosening those restrictions for cross country, tennis and golf, they believe those requirements during play “should be removed for all student athletes.”

“As Superintendents of local school districts, we have a moral imperative to keep our students safe,” the letter states. “We are struggling to understand the mandate of masks for student athletes that is outlined in EO-176 as we believe that it requires us to enforce mandates that are not safe for our students.”

In particular, the superintendents’ concern lies with sweating and oxygen intake during play. They cite Centers for Disease Control guidance that states people should not wear masks “while engaged in activities that may cause the mask to become wet” and that “a wet mask may make it difficult to breathe.” The letter claims there is no evidence that wetness caused by swimming, where masks are not required, should “supersede wetness created by sweat and mucus.”

While the superintendents don’t want student-athletes to wear masks during play, their letter states they do support them wearing a mask when they are on the sidelines or not actively playing.

Lemmer, who initially brought the idea of the letter to the superintendents, said the issue is an important one to them based on community feedback.

“The feedback the superintendents are receiving from our stakeholders — community members and parents — is that they are worried about their students’ safety and health from wearing a wet mask,” Lemmer said. “We went back to the CDC guidance and found that it does say you shouldn’t wear a wet mask, you shouldn’t wear a mask when you’re exercising at maximum exertion either. That’s a concern because it can make it difficult for somebody to breathe.”

The CDC guidance on “maximum exertion” activities, as Lemmer mentioned, states “People who are engaged in high intensity activities, like running, may not be able to wear a mask if it causes difficulty breathing.”

Lemmer said the letter was born out of collaboration with each of the superintendents.

“I had sent an email to the superintendents asking them if they would be interested in doing a joint statement, and the superintendents from Sturgis, White Pigeon, Mondon, Three Rivers and Constantine said they’d be interested,” Lemmer said. “I said I would draft it and they could all edit it and they went from there.”

Lemmer expanded on the point of wearing masks when on the sidelines or not actively playing.

“We think that it’s important that our students are following social distancing protocols, and we understand wearing masks are an important part of mitigating COVID,” Lemmer said. “We just believe that when they’re working out at maximum exertion, having a mask on gets in the way of their safety and being able to breathe.”

Moag, the Three Rivers superintendent, agreed.

“It’s in direct contradiction with the CDC, when they talk about that masks shouldn’t be wet,” Moag said. “They lose any type of preventative things why we wear masks, so it didn’t make sense that we’re going to make athletes in competition wear masks when they’re going to perspire and sweat.”

Moag pointed to pro sports, like the NFL and the NBA, as examples of not having to wear masks during competition.

The end goal, both Lemmer and Moag said, is that Whitmer reverses the mask requirements for football, soccer and volleyball. Lemmer said the superintendents who signed the letter just want to keep their districts’ students safe.

“Our job is to protect the students and keep them safe, and we’re concerned that the governor’s order contradicts what the CDC guidance states,” Lemmer said.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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