A crowd of unmasked students pressed into Manchester High School on Tuesday morning, violating a Washtenaw County Health Department mandate requiring all K-12 students to wear masks indoors to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The incident was caught on video and shared Wednesday on social media.
When questioned about how the mask mandate would be enforced, a sheriff’s deputy who was overseeing the situation said: “I’m not going to force anybody. I’m not putting masks on anybody. That’s not my job. This is a county health department order.”
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A school employee stood in the doorway, blocking students from entering the building, but then stepped away after parents began shouting that no one could enforce the mask mandate or touch students, and that they should just go in.
Similar scenes played out Tuesday at several schools in the Manchester Community Schools, a district about 20 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, said Susan Ringler Cerniglia, the health department’s public information officer.
The unmasked students, she said, were isolated and not allowed to mingle with other students inside.
“It was a fairly small group of people. What they did was go ahead and allow those unmasked individuals into the school buildings, but then they were in a separate area, I believe the library or some other separate space,” Ringler Cerniglia said. “So those students basically spent the day in that area and didn’t attend classes or mix with other students.”
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The Free Press left messages Wednesday for Manchester Community Schools Superintendent Bradley Bezeau, but got no immediate response.
Although the county health department has the authority under the public health code to issue fines and penalties, including charging violators with a misdemeanor, Ringler Cerniglia said the hope is that school leaders can work with parents and students to ensure compliance with the mask mandate, which took effect Tuesday.
“It has to be followed,” she said. “And they are looking to handle that with their school policies and procedures and wanted to give themselves a few days to work through that.
“As the health department, we would have the option to implement additional civil monetary penalties or misdemeanors, should that be necessary. We’re not at that point yet.”
Law enforcement was there, she said, to ensure the situation didn’t get out of hand.
“They were there to make sure that things were basically orderly and maintain that order. But it was not their job at that point yet to enforce the mask mandate,” Ringler Cerniglia said.
“The first process is really letting the school handle that with their existing policies and procedures and staying in contact with them. If we’re then to the point of needing additional enforcement from the health department, we’ll move forward with that, and likely work with law enforcement to do that.”
Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derrick Jackson agreed.
“Law enforcement is there to keep the peace, help keep people calm, to deescalate situations, to explain and to advise,” Jackson said. “We are not there to cite people for a (public health) violation.
“What has been working for us most of the time is explaining to community members and making sure they understand what the (public health) order is and what can happen.”
Masks are among the mitigation measures the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department recommend to reduce the spread of the virus in K-12 schools, where the number of outbreaks have nearly tripled in one week’s time.
Thirty new K-12 school coronavirus outbreaks were reported this week in Michigan. Included among them are cases involving 34 students and staff at three schools in Midland — Adams Elementary, Chestnut Hill Elementary, and Woodcrest Elementary, and 20 students and staff at three Livingston County schools — Parker Middle School and Three Fires Elementary in Howell and Farms Intermediate in Brighton. At least 12 members of Detroit’s Renaissance High School varsity and junior varsity football teams also contracted the virus.
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There’s no statewide mask mandate for schoolchildren or staff, so leaders at local health departments and within school districts are making often controversial decisions about whether to require them — sparking protests and even death threats.
Despite that, 229 school districts in Michigan now have mask requirements — either enacted by local school districts or local health departments — affecting more than 750,000 students, or 60.5% of students in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office said Wednesday.
“Districts and local public health leaders should keep working together to implement mask guidelines and create buy-in at the community level, which leads to better outcomes and better adherence to policies that keep kids, teachers, staff, and parents safe,” Whitmer said in a statement.
Still, coronavirus case rates in Michigan remain high as the extremely contagious delta strain of the virus spreads. On Wednesday, Michigan added 2,364 newly confirmed cases — the highest single-day new case total since May — and a more than 2,000% increase from a seven-day average low of 110 new daily cases reported on June 28.
Hospitalizations from the virus have risen 495% to 1,309 Wednesday from the July 9 low of 220 statewide.
The percentage of positive coronavirus tests reported by the state also continues to creep upward, averaging 10.6% over the last seven days, compared with a low of 1.2% in late June.
Ringler Cerniglia said it’s unfortunate masks have become so controversial at this stage of the pandemic.
“It’s a little baffling to me, equating them with a medical intervention or oppression when they’re really noninvasive and can reduce and prevent spread,” she said. “Unfortunately, we know every COVID public health action is very mixed up in a lot of strong feelings. It’s a little out of whack with … the public health goal of prevention.”
Mandates, she said, are only needed when people choose not to follow the advice of health leaders.
“The mandate isn’t really the way this should work,” Ringler Cerniglia said. “We should be able to, as the public health department, provide the information about what we’re seeing, what the trends are, what the concerns are, and be able to provide that guidance and have it implemented. But, unfortunately, that’s not exactly where we are.”
Free Press staff writer Lily Altavena contributed to this report.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
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