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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

In Upper Peninsula, a COVID spike, a death threat and new school mask mandates

empty classroom
Elementary students in two western U.P. counties will have to mask up in classrooms, after the local health department issued a mandate in response to increasing COVID-19 numbers.(Shutterstock)

Oct. 4: COVID outbreaks in Michigan schools already 8 times higher than last year
Sept. 30: Michigan counties dump mask rules for thousands of students amid budget mess
Sept. 30: Science says school masks work. Public opinion is another issue in Michigan
Sept. 22: Michigan GOP’s bid to block mask rules with budget looks dead on arrival

An Upper Peninsula health department has mandated masks for students and staff in two counties, following a troubling rise in COVID-19 cases and a death threat to a school board member.

The order, issued Thursday evening, requires face coverings in elementary schools in Iron and Dickinson counties. The order takes effect Monday, and will continue until six weeks after vaccinations are available for children ages 5-11 (who are not yet eligible for vaccination), or until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers COVID transmission levels to be “low” in the counties. Currently, transmission levels are considered “high.”

Superintendents in this rural, politically conservative region along the Wisconsin border scrambled Friday to respond to the order. Only a handful of school districts in the U.P. had issued mask mandates before Thursday, and no health department north of the Mackinac Bridge had done so.

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Late Friday, the Barry Eaton District Health Department in mid-Michigan also issued a school mask mandate for all students and staff from kindergarten through 12th grade. That order will go into effect Sept. 22.

The order impacting schools in Barry and Eaton counties, issued by Health Officer Colette Scrimger, was accompanied by a statement from the chair of the local Board of Health stating that, while the board disagreed with the mandate, the board acknowledged that the decision “was hers and hers alone to make.

“Ms. Scrimger has made her decision, and state law does not allow it to be overturned by local county commissioners,” wrote Board of Health Chair Ben Geiger. “The Board of Health respects her decision and refuses to engage in divisive political theater that changes no minds and overturns no orders. For the sake of our children, our families and our public health staff, let’s move forward with respect, empathy and civility.”

In the Upper Peninsula, meanwhile, the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department order was issued just a few weeks into the school year because of a rise in cases among young people.

Among the 382 cases of COVID-19 reported from September 1- September 15 in the two-county region, school-aged children have accounted for 37 percent of those cases.

Statewide, since the pandemic began, 16 percent of all cases were in Michigan residents under the age of 20; since Sept. 1, the share statewide within this younger age group has jumped to 27 percent.

In the roughly three weeks since schools opened for the fall, 141 school-age children out of about 4,800 total students in the two counties have tested positive. That’s one in every 34 students.

Since the start of school three weeks ago, the number of new confirmed COVID cases among school-age children has grown 150 percent each week, according to the health department statement. Young people are less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19, but hospitalizations among children and teens from the virus have risen in recent weeks as the more contagious delta variant spreads.

Dickinson County has an overall  test positivity rate of 9 percent and a weekly case rate of 590.3 per 100,000 population. Iron County has a positivity rate of 9.2 percent and a weekly case rate of 334.3 per 100,000 population. The state has set a goal of keeping the test positivity rate at 3 percent or below to contain community spread. 

“By watching these alarming trends in our local data, I feel that this is an important time to act,” Daren Deyaert, health officer for the health department, said in a statement. “This act is warranted and temporary to protect those who are not yet eligible to receive protection from the COVID-19 vaccination.”

The order won’t be popular among the majority of families in the area, said Christy Larson, superintendent of Forest Park Schools in Crystal Falls, in Iron County.

Her one-building, 450-student district has been mask-optional, and there have been more students test positive in the three weeks since classes opened for the fall (36) than in all of the 2020-21 school year (25) when all students had to mask up.

Some of those 36 COVID-positive students may have contracted the virus outside of school, Larson said.

On Friday, Larson told Bridge Michigan that she’s been fielding calls from upset parents, asking her what options the district can offer to avoid masking. The district’s school board will meet Monday night to discuss the district’s response to the mandate.

“Our mask-choice families are the loudest voice,” Larson said.

Prior to the health department mandate, about 30 percent of elementary students were wearing masks in the Forest Park district, and a lower share of older students, Larson said.

David Holmes, superintendent of Breitung Township Schools in Dickinson County, estimated that fewer than 10 percent of students in his 1,900-student district were wearing masks before the health department mandate. “The majority of our families favor choice,” Holmes said, but “it’s my understanding this is a mandate. We are telling students to mask up Monday.”

Last school year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a statewide school mask mandate. This fall, Whitmer has deferred to local districts and health departments to make their own decisions on masking, though MDHHS “strongly recommends” face coverings in schools.

The result has been a hodgepodge of policies across the state and heated debate between parents who want mandates, and families who believe masking should be an individual choice. Sometimes, those debates have bordered on violence.

Of the seven school districts in the two U.P. counties, only one previously had a mask mandate. After the school board for the  Norway-Vulcan Area Schools voted 5-2 to require masks for elementary students, there was a death threat against a school board member on social media

“You can’t print exactly what it said, but leaving out the curse words and the Nazis, it said, ‘We need to find out where this board member lives and go there and bring a rope,’” said Norway-Vulcan Superintendent Lou Steigerwald. “We called the police and the person took down the post.

Discussion about masks “tends to be very unpleasant,” Steigerwald said. “We’re a very red county, and we have a lot of (mask) resistors.”

With the mandate in the two counties, there are now at least 237 of the state’s 533 traditional public school districts that have mask mandates. About 766,000 students (61 percent of all public students in the state) are required to wear face coverings while inside school buildings.

You can look up your school districts’ mask policy here.

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