Michigan state health officials are not mandating students, staff and visitors wear masks or get vaccinated before the start of the school year, but the Department of Health and Human Services does “strongly recommend” that local districts implement such mandates.
“Because many students have yet to be vaccinated and students under age 12 are not yet eligible, layered prevention measures — including universal masking — must be put in place for consistent in-person learning to be maintained and to keep kids, staff, and families safe,” reads guidance issued Friday by the department.
Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers remain far better than most states in the country. But its case rates, test positivity rates and hospitalizations continue to rise. The department suggested earlier this week that statisitcal modeling predicts a “continued increase in hospitalizations and deaths over the next four to six weeks, maybe longer.”
Health department Director Elizabeth Hertel said the department issued guidance on Friday because “districts were a little unclear” on whether the state recommended mask mandates.
The health department has the power to implement a mask mandate for all students, and for decades Michigan schools have required students receive certain vaccinations. However, Hertel said she’s trying to offer guidance as opposed to requirements because before the pandemic, recommendations were enough.
“With previous communicable diseases or other health issues in schools, the department would put out recommendations, and schools and other local entities would generally follow those because that’s what we’re recommending.”
She acknowledged some school districts likely would not, but she did not outline specific criterion that would trigger a new order from her department. She reiterated that the state now has a handy tool in safe and effective vaccines.
“We’re in a very different situation that we were even a year ago,” she said.
The lack of any mask mandate puts district-level leaders in a difficult position, particularly in communities divided over the issue of masks.
Achieving universal masking indoors in schools across the state would likely take an order from the state health department, according to Peter Spadafore, deputy director of external relations for Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.
“We’re seeing guidance but no ‘this is what has to be done,’” he said. “Superintendents are not, for the most part, medical experts… The health departments have been wonderful partners throughout all this. But also, they’re the ones that need to really be clear on what needs to happen.”
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For weeks, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her administration have said they are not considering issuing new mandates. But the governor has repeatedly called on school districts to implement required masking
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Many health and education associations in Michigan and across the country support mask mandates. Locally, officials in Detroit, Lansing and Gennessee County are among those that have issued school mask mandates.
Nick Derusha, president of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, said Genesee County is the first local health department in the state to require masks for all students ages 5-11, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
It’s unclear, he said, whether other local health departments will make similar moves.
“Absent a statewide order, I think it’s going to end up being local decisions and conversations about what’s happening locally, what’s happening within the schools, or schools requiring them on their own based on we’re seeing as far as cases in the community, cases in the schools,” he said.
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These mandates are already raising questions. Superintendent Kevin Brown, with Davison Community Schools, wrote in a statement to families Thursday that the district was consulting with its legal counsel to “explore our options” over the Genenesse County mask mandate. Brown wrote that the new requirement came as a “complete surprise” to the district.
Flint Community Schools, which kicked off the school year on Aug. 4, however, had already required masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Mask requirements have fostered vitriol in recent weeks online and during an Aug. 10 meeting of the Michigan State Board of Education. Board members debated whether to make a statement of support for universal mask mandates and ultimately resolved to make a statement supporting the ability of local school districts to decide for themselves.
That meeting drew nearly three hours of public comment from across the state, including community members vehemently opposed to mask mandates and vaccine mandates. At some points, board members talked over each other and raised their voices.
However, another contingent of parents said they feel as if their children have been ignored in all the debate: Parents of children with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.
Sarah May Seward, the mother of a high school senior in White Lake, Michigan, said her daughter could contract pneumonia just from a case of the sniffles.
“We cannot go through this again, this is her senior year, and she is going to be forced to miss it … and this is all because people are refusing to wear masks,” she said. Adding, “We’re completely forgetting about the kids that have special needs and disabilities in this whole thing and we’re just brushing them aside and putting them in virtual education, which is nothing like what they need.”
On Friday, Michigan officially passed 20,000 deaths because of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The state is on course to record 1 million cases before the end of the year.
Contact Dave Boucher at email@example.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.