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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

In Michigan schools, ‘mask-optional’ usually means no masks

Averie Swan
Averie Swan is in the minority of her first grade class who are wearing face masks in a mask-optional elementary school in Cheboygan, a fact that frustrates her mother, Amanda Swan. (Courtesy photo from Kara D’Andrea)

Oct. 4: COVID outbreaks in Michigan schools already 8 times higher than last year
Sept. 30: Michigan counties dump mask rules for thousands of students amid budget mess
Sept. 30: Science says school masks work. Public opinion is another issue in Michigan
Sept. 22: Michigan GOP’s bid to block mask rules with budget looks dead on arrival

Averie Swan stands out among her first-grade classmates at East Elementary in Cheboygan Area Schools. It’s not because of her pink Hello Kitty shirt or blue backpack decorated with images of tiny foxes. It isn’t because of her Wonder Woman face mask.

It’s that she’s wearing a mask at all.

She’s one of three or four children in a 25-student classroom who routinely wears a face mask in school

“She’s really frustrated,” said Averie’s mother, Amanda Swan. “What she says is ‘We wore masks all last year and it wasn’t fun but it was fine.’

“It’s heavy stuff for a 6-year-old.”

Related:

About 61 percent of Michigan’s public school students are required to wear face coverings, either because of mandates by their school districts or local health departments. And though students in the rest of the state are strongly encouraged to wear masks, most children in mask-optional school districts are not, say school leaders and parents who spoke to Bridge Michigan.

The result is a stark mask divide, including some instances in which a district may have 100 percent of students wearing masks, and a neighboring district having fewer than 10 percent with facial coverings.

At least 237 of the state’s 533 traditional school districts — totaling about 766,000 students — now have mask mandates.

In some districts requiring masks, only pre-K and elementary school students, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, face a mandate. While in others, all students must wear face coverings. (The 758,000 figure represents only those students required to wear masks.)

You can look up your local school district’s mask policy here.

There is no data on the percentage of students wearing face masks in the state’s mask-optional schools. Many superintendents in those districts did not respond to inquiries from Bridge Michigan. Those who did said that despite recommendations made to parents to encourage masks in classrooms, most students weren’t masking up.

In Buckley Area Schools in Wexford County, about one in 10 students and staff wore face masks last week, estimated Superintendent Jessica Harrand.

In Bullock Creek Schools in Midland County, Superintendent Shawn Hale estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of students were masking up, with the share of mask-wearers “a little lower in high school.”

And in the Crawford AuSable School District in Grayling, just 5 to 10 percent of students are wearing masks. 

The Crawford Ausable district borders Gaylord Community Schools, where all students wear masks because of a local health department mandate. Current COVID-19 infection rates in the two districts are similar, and comparatively low compared to the state as a whole.

Crawford Ausable Superintendent Justin Gluesing told Bridge Michigan that he’s received only three emails from families urging the district to impose a mask mandate. “Families are comfortable with the decisions we’ve made,” he said, adding that mask-wearing could be required if infection rates increase.

Gluesing said the local health department has recommended schools require masks, but has not issued a mandate. “They understand our approach, but it is not their recommendation,” the superintendent said.

Parents who spoke to Bridge from various mask-optional districts pegged mask-wearing in their schools at 10 percent or lower.

Kristen McDonald Rivet’s son Eli is a sixth-grader at Essexville-Hampton Public Schools near Bay City. He is one of the few in his class wearing a mask all day.

For health issues, McDonald Rivet takes immunosuppressants, making her more susceptible to COVID-19. She says Eli realizes it’s crucial to keep the virus out of their home.

“He knows it’s important to protect not just his own health but also to protect mine, and that is a lot to ask of an 11-year-old boy,” McDonald Rivet said.

Just one of Eli’s teachers regularly wears a mask, McDonald Rivet said.

McDonald Rivet said Eli told her some of his classmates rib him about his face mask, saying “‘Why are you wearing a mask? Your mom’s not here,’ It’s a tough situation. The very worst thing you can be in middle school is different.”

After starting the school year mask-optional, the Essexville-Hampton school board voted Wednesday night to require masks for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, an age group that is too young to be eligible for vaccines. Eli’s sixth-grade classmates don’t have to mask up. He’ll turn 12 and be eligible for vaccination in January, according to his mother.

As the pandemic stretches well into its second year, there is growing consensus on the importance of returning students to classrooms for their well-being and academic success, but heated public debate over school mask mandates.

Those who favor school mandates, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and many local health departments, argue that masking up in school can help slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus to more vulnerable populations.

While some parents in mask-optional districts have urged school leaders to require face coverings, others in schools with mask mandates have protested the requirement.

Tuesday, Nancy Rotarius told Bridge Michigan that she didn’t want her 13-year-old son to have to wear a mask in class in Dansville Public Schools, where face coverings are mandated by an order from the Ingham County Health Department. 

“It’s my son, and I should have the opportunity to make the choice for him both in vaccinations and for masking,” she said. “I’ve had it. I’m just so tired as a mom, and I know my son is tired.”

The divisions have primarily broken down along partisan lines. A Republican-led state Senate panel on Tuesday advanced bills that would bar local mask mandates and allow parents to opt their children out of face mask requirements. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would likely veto those bills if they make it to her desk.

Early data from the beginning of the school year suggest infection rates among Michigan children are rising since classrooms reopened. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 16.6 percent of all confirmed COVID cases in Michigan were among those under age 20; since Sept. 1, that share has increased to 26.9 percent.

Hospitalizations among youth have risen, but those rates are still relatively low compared to other age groups. There are currently 26 pediatric COVID cases in Michigan hospitals, out of a total of 1,535 hospitalizations.

In Great Britain and some other European countries, students don’t wear masks, with schools instead trying to limit the spread of infection through quarantines and rapid testing. The World Health Organization suggests the “benefits of wearing masks in children for COVID-19 control should be weighed against potential harm associated with wearing masks, including feasibility and discomfort, as well as social and communication concerns.”

The WHO noted, however, that it isn’t saying masks don’t help limit spread of COVID, and studies on the impact of masks on COVID-19 spread indicate “mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact.”

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association strongly recommend student face masks, and a Duke University report noted that masks were effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in schools studied in North Carolina.

The Whitmer administration mandated masks in schools during the 2020-21 school year, but has so far deferred to local officials this fall, leading to a hodgepodge of policies and anger among parents on both sides of the issue.

Rochester Community Schools in Oakland County has a mask mandate and has had nearly 100-percent compliance, Superintendent Robert Shaner told Bridge recently.

Sixty miles west, though, in mask-optional Howell Public Schools in Livingston County, Katie Deck said her first-grade daughter is among a minority of students in her class wearing a mask.

“There were one or two (masked students) who requested to go to her (first grade) class (instead of another class) because there were more wearing masks” in Deck’s daughter’s class,” Deck said. “So now there are around five or six wearing masks in a class of 20.

“The reason I’ve been somewhat comfortable is because her teacher has been amazing,” Deck said. “She let us know she was vaccinated. At the beginning (of the school year) she (the teacher) wasn’t wearing a mask, but she is now most of the day.”

Deck said school mask policies have driven a wedge through the community.

“I used to love this community. Now I’d move if I could. People keep screaming about choice. When your choice affects other people, it’s not just your choice anymore,” Deck said. “Even if it is only immunocompromised children who are getting sick, their lives matter.”

Several school leaders who spoke to Bridge but did not want to be quoted said the mask battle poses a no-win situation between forcing students to wear face coverings and “recommending” masks knowing that few kids will wear them.

“There are definitely opinions, and I’ve fielded a lot of phone calls and emails about it,” said Bullock superintendent Hale. “They just want to protect their kids, and so do I.”

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