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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

State, feds suggest masks in classrooms. Michigan schools aren’t so sure.

student wearing mask
Michigan school boards likely will be making their own determinations about whether to require face masks in classrooms. (Shutterstock)

Aug. 18: State’s top doc to Whitmer: School mask mandate would reduce COVID in Michigan
Aug. 17: Michigan school mask tracker: Find rules in your district
Aug. 4: Gov. Whitmer urges Michigan schools to mask up, stops short of mandate
July 28: CDC recommends masks in 11 Michigan counties. Most have low inoculation rates

It’s likely that face mask policies will vary widely this fall among Michigan K-12 schools, despite recommendations from state and federal officials and pediatricians that children should continue to mask up.

The American Academy of Pediatrics this week recommended that all students and staff in U.S. K-12 schools wear face masks this fall, regardless of whether they had been vaccinated. Those recommendations followed voluntary guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on July 9 that called for unvaccinated staff and students to wear masks while inside school buildings. That would include virtually all elementary school students, because children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, and are unlikely to be vaccinated until sometime this coming winter.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also recommended students mask up in school this fall. The guidance, released in June, is a recommendation, not a mandate, as are the CDC guidelines.

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The recommendations come as coronavirus cases are rising in some states, and as concerns grow over the more contagious Delta variant. Cases remain low in Michigan. The most recent seven-day average of new daily reported cases is 273. As recently as April, daily new cases averaged over 7,000.

Dr. Sharon Swindell, past president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement to Bridge that the organization’s recommendations are a “more cautious approach … to maximize opportunity for in-person learning for all students while providing the safest environment for students, teachers and staff.

“Currently, children under age 12 do not have the option to be vaccinated, vaccination rates remain low in 12-18 year-olds, some members of the school community cannot be vaccinated due to underlying medical and immune system conditions,” Swindell said. With a mask mandate, “schools will not have the added burden of monitoring vaccination status, and will create consistent expectations for all students without creating stigma around vaccination status.”

The recent face mask recommendations are being discussed among school leaders in Michigan, with some continuing to wait to make final decisions until closer to the beginning of the school year.

Ann Arbor Public Schools hasn’t made a call on masks, according to a district spokesperson. Kalamazoo Public Schools is planning to require all students and staff to wear masks through November, according to a letter to parents from Kalamazoo Superintendent Rita Raichoudhuri. Ecorse Superintendent Josha Talison said his district is “leaning toward” requiring masks of all students and unvaccinated staff and visitors, but a final decision hadn’t been made yet.

Barring a mandate from state or federal officials, though, most school officials who spoke to Bridge Michigan say they are still planning to make masks optional for students and staff.

Countywide school officials in Kalamazoo and Oakland counties said the majority of districts in those counties are planning mask-optional policies. In Ingham County, some districts are looking at mask-optional policies, and some considering mask mandates for elementary students who are not yet eligible for vaccinations.

Dave Campbell, superintendent of Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, said school district leaders are feeling pressure both from families who oppose mask mandates, and those who want the requirement.

Because of differences in attitudes about masks between communities, mask rules are likely to be different from district to district. “It’s local boards deciding,” Campbell said. “We’ve wanted this thing to be over, but it’s not over with the tension.”

In the Upper Peninsula, Norway Vulcan Area Schools Superintendent Lou Steigerwald said that if the new school year started today, masks would be voluntary in his district.

“We’re kind of waiting to see what happens” with COVID-19 in the weeks before school starts, Steigerwald said. “One of the things that drives us crazy is it keeps changing.”

Steigerwald said school leaders would prefer clear guidance from state or federal officials, rather than recommendations that give schools the final word.

“You know, we’re really not qualified to make medical decisions for other people,” Steigerwald said.

If masks are not required in baseball stadiums or movie theaters, it will be difficult to convince parents they’re required in classrooms, said Robert McCann, executive director of the K12 Alliance of Michigan, a school advocacy organization.

“Schools want to follow the advice of medical experts,” McCann said. “But if they’re saying it’s safe to not wear masks other places but you’re supposed to wear masks in classrooms, that’s not going to fly,” McCann said.

“We continue to advise parents that the best thing they can do (to make the upcoming school year as normal as possible) is to get vaccinated,” McCann said. 

Beyond that, “the reality is, districts are going to look at (the recommendations), but it’s more likely than not that districts will have masks be optional.”

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