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Almost half of Michigan students now in schools with COVID mask mandates

Strongly worded recommendations from state and federal agencies and increases nationwide in infections and hospitalizations among young people are pushing Michigan county health departments and school districts to issue mask mandates. (Shutterstock)

Sept. 8: Michigan: Masked or vaxxed students more likely to avoid COVID quarantine
Sept. 2: Majority of Michigan students must now mask up, as Ingham, Washtenaw add rules
Aug. 30: Which Michigan school COVID measures work? We asked scientists

Aug. 27: Six northern Michigan counties join Wayne with newest school mask mandates

Even without a statewide school mask mandate, a rising number of Michigan school districts are requiring face coverings when classes open, either of their own choice or through orders from county health departments.

As of Tuesday night, at least 153 of the state’s 537 traditional school districts, enrolling about 660,000 students — 46 percent of all public school students in Michigan — had mask mandates, according to figures tabulated by the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Not all those 660,000 students will be required to wear masks — in some of the 153 districts, for instance, only elementary school students, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, will face a mask mandate. While in others, all students must wear face coverings.

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Mask mandates have skyrocketed in the past week as delta variant-fueled cases continue to rise, a greater number of children in some areas are being hospitalized, and with the federal government granting full approval to the vaccine produced by Pfizer. The health division of Oakland County issued a mask mandate for all schools in the state’s second most populous county Tuesday evening. The order covers the 28 public school districts in the county as well as charter schools.

That order requires all staff and students from pre-K through 12th grade to wear face coverings while in school, regardless of vaccination status, and stays in effect until 14 days after community transmission in the county is lowered to “moderate” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oakland County is now categorized by the CDC as having “high” transmission. Most counties in the state are categorized as having “substantial” or “high” transmission, both considered worse for COVID spread than “moderate.”

Oakland is at least the sixth county to issue mask mandates for schools, following Genesee, Kent, Ottawa, Kalamazoo and Allegan counties.

Some schools without countywide mandates are making the choice on their own to require masks.

One example is Warren Consolidated Schools in Macomb County, the state’s 10th-largest school district with 13,000 students. That district had announced in early August that masks would be optional. But faced with growing concern about the delta variant and increasingly strident federal and state recommendations that face masks be required, the district changed course Sunday, requiring masks for all staff and students.

“Given the vaccine is not yet available for children younger than 12 years old and many live with older siblings, the spread of Covid-19, and the more contagious delta variant, remain a significant concern,” Warren Superintendent Robert Livernois wrote to parents. “This is especially important as cases are increasing just as schools are returning to full-time, in-person learning this fall.”

Plymouth-Canton Community Schools announced a mandate Tuesday, making it the seventh of the state’s 10 largest-enrollment school districts to require face masks. Among the top 10, Utica and Chippewa Valley in Macomb County and Livonia in Wayne County remain mask-optional.

Other districts with mandates include Detroit, Dearborn, Rochester, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

 

Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a statewide mask mandate during the 2020-21 school year, but so far have stopped short of requiring face masks this fall, instead issuing guidance that “strongly recommends” masks.

The administration’s top doctor, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, acknowledged last week that she had recommended to Whitmer that a statewide school mask mandate would decrease COVID among students.

Since then, Whitmer has continued to insist that those school districts rather than the governor should make the “hard decisions” about whether to mandate masks for staff or students or make them optional.

School leaders responded by saying that medical experts, rather than superintendents and school boards, should make the decision about masks. Robert McCann, executive director of the K12 Alliance for Michigan, a school advocacy group, said repeatedly during this summer that schools, facing intense pressure from vocal anti-mask parents, would never mandate masks on their own.

But that resistance has started to crumble in the past week. The percentage of Michigan students attending schools where masks are mandated for at least some students rose from 35 percent Monday, to 46 percent one day later, according to data collected by the state and shared with Bridge Michigan.

In Oakland County, for example, as of Friday, just 11 of the county’s 29 public school districts had announced mask mandates, according to The Oakland Press. Tuesday’s mandate issued by Oakland County officials means all 176,000 students in the county will be wearing masks this fall. The county order cited rising infections and hospitalizations among children linked to the more-infectious delta variant of COVID-19.

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