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Michigan counties drop mask mandates as COVID plummets. Schools may follow.

kid in mask
Fewer than a dozen Michigan counties still had mask mandates. Now, those orders are falling, too. (Shutterstock)

March 4: Angry Up North: scars linger after Michigan school mask mandates end
March 3: Michigan State University to relax COVID-19 mask mandate
March 1: Michigan state employees won’t have to mask at work starting Thursday

Feb. 25: New guidance: Most in Michigan can ditch their masks for now

Eight counties across Michigan are poised to rescind school mask mandates next week, removing one of the last and most divisive measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ingham, Washtenaw and six northern Michigan counties are expected to end mandates that have covered dozens of districts and tens of thousands of students.

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Ingham County will end its mandate on Feb. 18, said Linda Vail, the county’s public health officer. Her department will still recommend masking in schools but will no longer require it.

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“Public health strategies are shifting to personal responsibility,” Vail told Bridge Michigan on Thursday. 

She said falling cases and rising vaccinations, combined with a need to move away from an “emergency” phase prompted the decision.

Other counties could follow suit, including Oakland, but it wasn’t immediately clear Thursday when or if they might do so.  In counties where the mandates will be rescinded, the decision on masking will now fall to local school leaders.

One school official believes most will drop the mandates.

“If the counties move to change the recommendations, I think you’ll have a large number of those districts follow suit,” Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance for Education, a Michigan school advocacy organization. 

Despite the local decisions, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services continues to recommend “universal masking” in K-12 education.

Lynn Sutfin, an MDHHS spokesperson, said nearly 700 infections were tied to school outbreaks in the past week.

“Although case rates and percent positivity have begun to decline in Michigan, we are still at what we consider to be a high plateau and we continue to monitor these metrics closely as they pertain to the use of mitigation strategies such as masks,” she wrote in an email to Bridge.  

“To help protect students, staff and communities, we continue to recommend universal masking in schools and wearing masks in indoor public settings to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

The moves come as omicron cases plummet, and as leaders across the country have dropped mask mandates this week

Michigan is averaging just under 4,000 new infections a day — considered high by standards established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but that’s a quarter of the cases that were reported just three weeks ago. 

After hitting a peak of 5,009 COVID-19 patients in Michigan hospitals on Jan. 10, there were 2,595 patients as of Wednesday.

That’s caused public health leaders to reevaluate recommendations that for more than a year have ignited tensions, set off anger-filled school board meetings, created confusion, and prompted some students to switch schools in many communities.

“We are seeing cases and positivity, falling rapidly. Our hospitals are showing early signs of stabilization, and parents have had ample, ample opportunity to get their children vaccinated,” said Lisa Peacock, health officer for six northwest Michigan counties — Benzie, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, Leelanau, and Otsego.

Lisa Peacock
Mask mandates were intended to be temporary, said Lisa Peacock, health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which is considering lifting school mask requirements. (Courtesy photo)

Peacock told Bridge she told school districts in a morning call Thursday that she is lifting the mask order in those counties, effective Thursday at 11:59 p.m.

That gives school districts time to form their own policies, she said.

“Lifting of the order is appropriate, because it was only a temporary strategy in the first place,” she said.

But, she added: “It doesn't mean that masking is no longer important.”

Health leaders in Oakland County have considered lifting the county's mask order for weeks, driven "by what will keep the students in the classroom learning," said spokesperson Bill Mullan, who added they had no decision to report Thursday. 

As of Feb. 3, 682,356 students — 54 percent of all Michigan public school students — were covered by mandates in 173 districts, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

That was 22 districts and 37,000 students fewer than on Jan. 18, showing a growing trend of moving away from the mandates that accelerated this week as leaders in Connecticut, Delaware, California, New York and elsewhere announced the easing of school mask mandates and other requirements.

School mask mandates were first enacted as the delta variant swept the state, just as the school year was beginning. Case counts rose until early December before falling slightly. Then the omicron variant sent case counts to their highest levels of the pandemic.

With nearly 5.6 million state residents fully vaccinated and now hundreds of thousands more having some natural immunity following an omicron infection, there is renewed hope that the surge will lead to an extended reprieve from a virus that has been blamed on the deaths of more than  30,700 residents.

And more help is available for school-age children, with vaccines for children 5 and older available since November, and a vaccine for the youngest children appears to be nearing federal authorization, too.

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Whatever health department recommendations, school districts must continue to decide what is best for their students and staff, said Pete Kelto, superintendent of Munising Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula.

The district began the school year with a mask mandate, even though the health department didn’t require one. It dropped it after the holidays, but then reinstated it nearly immediately after the district logged 74 cases within the first two weeks of school in January.

“Every school district is different,” said Kelto, ading that he expects a decision by Monday about whether to lift the mask mandate at the Munising district.

Susan Ringler Cerniglia, a spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Health Department, said the county’s recommendation will likely change on Friday. 

“With declining cases and improved hospital capacity, we are reviewing and watching carefully,” she wrote in an email to Bridge Michigan. “We do expect to announce updates soon – likely tomorrow.”

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