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Majority of Michigan students must now mask up, as Ingham, Washtenaw add rules

students in the hallway with masks
The number of Michigan students required to wear face coverings in classrooms is growing daily, including students in Holt Public Schools. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Sept. 17: In Upper Peninsula, a COVID spike, a death threat and a school mask mandate
Sept. 14: Republicans advance bills to bar Michigan school mask mandates
Sept. 8: Michigan: Masked or vaxxed students more likely to avoid COVID quarantine

Two more Michigan counties have issued school mask mandates, with about six in 10 K-12 students now required to wear face coverings in classrooms because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health officials in Ingham and Washtenaw counties issued school mask requirements Thursday morning, joining at least 14 other Michigan counties with mandates.

Eight of the nine most populous counties in the state now have orders requiring face masks in school buildings. Most mandate masks for all students, but a few only require face coverings for elementary students, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination.

Related:

At least 16 of Michigan’s 83 counties now have countywide school mask mandates. There are at least 220 districts with a mask policy in place, and 717,740 students (59 percent of all public K-12 students) must mask up.

The Ingham County order requires everyone to wear face masks inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The order applies to traditional public, charter, private, parochial and vocational schools. The order doesn’t apply to colleges.

The order in Washtenaw County is similar, and will be in place until after 14 consecutive days when the county’s infection rate is considered “moderate” or lower by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Currently, Washtenaw and Ingham counties are considered at a “high” rate of transmission.

Both orders go into effect Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, which is traditionally the first day of school in Michigan, though many schools have already started classes.

Mask requirements have led to protests and debates in school board meetings in recent weeks, with anti-mandate parents arguing families should make their own decisions about children and that the benefits of masks are outweighed by academic and social-emotional harm. 

Pro-mandate parents counter that their children aren’t safe from COVID-19 unless all students are masked up.

School officials have pleaded for a statewide policy to avoid differences between districts and counties. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose administration imposed a statewide mask mandate in the 2020-21 school year, has allowed school districts to set their own policies.

As of Aug. 30, nine states had prohibited school districts from requiring masks, and 15 states and the District of Columbia had mask mandates.

Mask mandates have become a heated political issue at school board and county commissioner meetings around Michigan in recent weeks. But that hasn’t stopped an increase in mask requirements in districts, particularly in the southern half of the state.

Research on the effectiveness of masks in schools to limit COVID-19 spread isn’t conclusive, but health experts and many educators view the mandates as part of a series of mitigation efforts they hope will help keep students in classrooms this year, rather than lurching back and forth between schools and online learning.

The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in Michigan has nearly quintupled since early July, rising to 1,925 this week, largely due to the highly infectious delta variant. While that’s still far fewer cases than this spring, health officials say they remain concerned.

“We are grateful to our local schools and districts that have already done the work to require masks and that continue to work closely with us on isolation and quarantine measures,” Jimena Loveluck, health officer with Washtenaw County Health Department, said in a statement. 

“Unfortunately, we are trending in the wrong direction, and it’s imperative that we use all of our tools to prevent and control COVID in educational settings and provide in-person learning as safely as possible.”

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