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COVID shots for young kids adds confusion to Michigan school mask mandates

William Zeichman, 5, gets his COVID-19 vaccine
Children between the ages of 5 and 11 are lining up for the COVID-19 vaccine. Whether they can soon take off masks in school depends on which school they attend. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

Nov. 17: 5 million Michiganders are vaccinated and COVID is surging. Here’s why
Nov. 15: Hospitals filling up as Michigan records highest COVID case rate in U.S.

Michigan’s patchwork of school mask policies will become more frayed in the coming weeks, as some local health departments make plans to drop school mask mandates in response to COVID-19 vaccinations for elementary-aged children.

A school mask mandate is being dropped in Kalamazoo County, for instance, but will remain in Ingham County. Requirements for facial coverings will be gone in Ottawa and Kent Counties by the time students return from Christmas break, but will likely still be in force in Washtenaw and Oakland counties.

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The difference? Some health departments based mandates on vaccine availability, and others on COVID transmission rate, which continues to be characterized as “high” in Michigan by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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About six-in-10 Michigan public schools students currently are required to wear masks inside schools. That number is likely to drop over the holidays, but just how far isn’t clear. School districts can choose to enforce mask requirements even in the absence of a local health department mandate.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a statewide school mask mandate in the 2020-21 school year, but declined to do so this school year, suggesting the decision was best left to local health departments and school districts.

That’s led to protests for and against masks at school boards across the state. Opponents argue that parents should have the choice as to whether their children wear face masks in school, while supporters, including many health officials, argue that universal masking cuts down on the COVID transmission that sometimes leads to mass quarantines of students and staff.

 

On Nov. 2, the CDC approved the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11 nationwide. Clinics are being set up in some Michigan schools, and the pediatric vaccine is widely available at pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

Students age 12 and up were already eligible for the vaccine.

The Kalamazoo County Health Department said it will end its school mask mandate on Dec. 17, following the guidelines set in the department’s health order stating the mandate is to end six weeks after the vaccine is available for children as young as 5.

Mask mandates in Kent and Ottawa counties include language stating the orders will end 60 days after vaccines are available for children ages 5-11, which means the orders end Jan. 2.

Health officials in the three counties told Bridge Michigan they do not plan to revise the orders to extend the mandates.

In several other counties, including Ingham, Washtenaw and Oakland, decisions over school mask mandates are tied to COVID transmission levels as characterized by the CDC. 

In those counties, school mask mandates will stay until COVID transmission rates are deemed “moderate,” or lower for 14 days straight, according to health orders issued by health departments in those counties. Currently, every county in Michigan is considered to be at a “high” transmission rate.

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“We have gotten a few calls with questions about whether this (school mask order) would be lifted now that vaccines are available, but our (order) is based on transmission,” said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Health Department.

One Ottawa County parent wasn’t pleased that the county’s mask mandate would be lifted in January for an elementary school where her 5- and 7-year-old children attend.

“They haven’t missed any school because of quarantines,” said Kathleen Lucas. “We’ve been lucky, which I attribute partly to masks. Our school has been great about it.”

She said her children received their first dose of  the COVID-19 vaccine over the weekend. Still, she worries about losing the layer of added protection offered by universal masking. “It’s scary and a little frustrating,” Lucas said.

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