While Michigan COVID-19 cases soar, some schools bring back masks, virtual learning

By: - November 29, 2021 4:54 am

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Nearly all students in Michigan’s K-12 schools are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine now that the Pfizer vaccine was approved earlier this month for children ages 5 to 11. But cases and outbreaks are still surging in schools, as health officials say the latest statewide spike is being driven by the unvaccinated. 

This means less days in the classroom for some schools, while other schools are reinstating their mask mandates to help mitigate outbreaks among students. 

Peter Spadafore, the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA) executive director for advocacy and communications, said superintendents are considering a number of options to address the current surge of cases.

“We are seeing districts that are exploring options to either prolong their breaks to allow a little bit more time after family gatherings or they’re looking at ways to offer synchronous or asynchronous remote learning for their students,” Spadafore said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a few more districts talking about implementing more masking policies at the local level or seeing county health departments do the same.”

In mid-May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people no longer had to wear masks in social settings. After this, on June 22, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rescinded the statewide mask and social-distancing mandates, leaving the decision to mask students this school year up to local health departments and schools. 

But earlier this month, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in Michigan, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued a mask “advisory” encouraging all Michiganders over the age of 2 to wear face coverings at indoor gatherings, regardless of vaccination status. However, the advisory is not enforceable and does not mandate masks. 

Data from Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools (MiPASS), a coalition of thousands of parents that back COVID health measures, shows COVID-19 mitigation strategies vary across the state. The data was collected by surveying parents and confirming with school districts and may not be complete. 

At least 137 school districts recommend masks, 194 school districts require masks, 29 school districts have partial mask requirements and 35 school districts have rescinded their mask mandates. 

According to the state, 7% of K-12 school districts have rescinded their mask policies since the start of school as of Oct. 25.

The current surge of COVID-19 cases have caused a number of schools to close down, including 34 school districts and four schools. Fifteen school districts have opted to shift back to virtual learning temporarily due to safety concerns. 

“As a COVID mitigation step to interrupt transmission and allow sick individuals to recuperate,” Ann Arbor Public Schools announced it was canceling classes on Monday and Tuesday before the already-scheduled Thanksgiving break. 

Detroit Public School Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced on Nov. 17 that the state’s largest school district is going remote for three Fridays in December due to concerns about “the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases and time to more thoroughly clean schools.”

Other schools that previously rescinded their mask mandate have now reverted back to requiring masks due to increases in cases, including Jackson Public Schools and Paw Paw Public School District. 

When the governor signed into law the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, it included Republicans’ boilerplate language that threatened to cut funding to local health departments that keep in place their mask mandates for schools. Whitmer said the language was unconstitutional and none of the health departments lost funding. But some counties dropped their mandates anyway, causing confusion for districts.

Other local health departments have set dates for when the mask mandates will expire. For example, Kent County’s and Ottawa County’s mask mandates will expire 60 days after the vaccines were approved for young children, which is Jan. 2, and Kalamazoo County’s mask mandate will expire six weeks after Nov. 5, which is Dec. 17. 

However, only about 13% of eligible kids ages 5 to 11 have gotten their first dose. For kids 12 to 15, 43% have received at least one shot and 39% are fully vaccinated. For those 16 to 19, 50% have gotten at least one dose and 46% are fully vaccinated.

MiPASS says the DHHS should be using “data, not dates” to make decisions around mask mandates. 

“If our COVID spread and our surge is still active 60 days after the vaccines are implemented, that’s not the time to drop the mask mandate,” said Emily Mellits, a parent organizer for MiPASS. “You really need to be looking at the data. What’s the community spread? What’s the positivity rate? And that’s what we should be making our decisions based on.”

A Detroit Public Schools Community District Priest Elementary-Middle School student on Sept. 7, 2021 | Ken Coleman photo

School outbreaks are on the rise, especially in unmasked districts

The most recent state data shows 566 ongoing and new outbreaks in K-12 schools, ranging from two cases to 77 cases per outbreak. State data from Nov. 3  to 10 showed that among various public settings across the state, K-12 schools reported the greatest number of new outbreaks and clusters. 

The problem isn’t just in schools, but the state as a whole is seeing another wave of COVID-19 cases. Michigan reported the highest positive case rate Monday, at 19%, since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. As of Wednesday — the last reporting date — the state has 1,276,264 COVID-19 cases and 23,595 deaths.

While the number of outbreaks in schools have steadily increased for all grade levels since Sept. 9, preschools and elementary schools are seeing the greatest increase, according to state data. 

Many students in these schools are now eligible for the vaccine since Nov. 3 when the CDC recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. Children ages 12 to 15 were approved for the vaccine in May. 

MiPASS says the answer to mitigate the surge of COVID-19 in schools is simple: a statewide mask mandate. 

The coalition of parents petitioned the DHHS to require masks in all Michigan schools in September and has repeatedly called for a mask mandate. 

DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said the state “strongly recommends a universal mask mandate in schools” along with other CDC-developed prevention strategies,but did not comment on MiPASS’ request to implement a statewide mandate again. 

“The stop-start, whack-a-mole patchwork of temporary mitigation measures that varies from school-to-school simply isn’t working to slow down COVID-19,” said Katie Deck, a Livingston County parent with MiPASS. 

The Michigan Education Association (MEA) believes the decision should continue to be made on the local level, but agrees that mask mandates are the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools. 

The stop-start, whack-a-mole patchwork of temporary mitigation measures that varies from school-to-school simply isn’t working to slow down COVID-19.

– Katie Deck, a Livingston County parent with MiPASS

“While final decisions about virus mitigation measures like masks need to be made at the local board level — and bargained by our local associations — MEA believes the public health recommendations for universal masking in our schools are in everyone’s best interests,” said Doug Pratt, Michigan Education Association (MEA) director of public affairs.

A CDC study done in September found that school districts without a universal masking policy in place were more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks. Nationwide, counties without masking requirements saw the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases increase nearly twice as quickly during this same period.

State data shows a similar situation in Michigan. From the start of the school year to the end of October, the state’s school age population case rates were higher and rose faster in districts without mask requirements. 

“If we know that schools are the number one source of outbreaks and we know masks help slow the transmission, it’s common sense that masks need to be in schools,” said Mellits. “But it just doesn’t seem to be working out that way, depending on where you live. We’d love for people to just do the right thing on their own, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in certain areas.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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