With all Michigan counties dropping mask mandates, schools have decisions to make

Only one-fifth of kids ages 5 to 11 have been vaccinated

By: - February 15, 2022 1:14 pm

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

Every county in the state is set to drop mask mandates for schools in Michigan and school districts are rolling back their own masking policies in response. 

Wayne County was the last of Michigan’s 83 counties to hold on to its mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic, but announced Friday it will be lifted by the end of the month, shortly after similar decisions were made in Oakland, Washtenaw, Ingham, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, Leelanau and Otsego counties this month. 

Without direction from county officials, the decision on whether to require masks for students is left up to school administrators.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), 173 school districts still had mask mandates in place as of Feb. 3, the latest available data. Those districts serve 682,356 students, about 54% of all Michigan public school students. 

On Jan. 10, DHHS issued a school guidance to strongly recommend a universal mask mandate in schools along with other CDC-developed prevention strategies.

COVID-19 case numbers are dropping statewide after a months-long surge fueled by the delta and omicron variants. But the state is still considered to have high community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DHHS reported Monday that a total of 2,037,742 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 30,959 have died from the virus.

Vaccination rates also continue to lag in Michigan. Statewide, 59.3% has had two doses. Those ages 16 to 19 have a 49% vaccination rate and those 12 to 15 are at 44%. But there’s a sharp drop for younger children, with only 22% of kids 5 to 11 getting both shots. The vaccine has not been approved for children under 5.

Dozens of schools are still reporting outbreaks each week, with nearly 500 schools facing new or ongoing outbreaks as of Monday. 

But with the major shift to drop mask mandates at the county level, many school districts are seeing this as a signal to reconsider their policies. 

Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MiPASS), a grassroot group of parents from across the state that backs COVID health protocols, are calling on county and school officials to put in place metrics based on data that would trigger a mask mandate to be reinstated.

“We are distressed, but unfortunately not surprised, at the premature and risky move to remove protections at the county level, and we predict it will lead to removal of mask requirements at the district level, as well as more illness and missed school, which no one wants,” said MiPASS member Emily Mellits of Washington Township in Macomb County. 

Rally to support health care workers and a statewide school mask order in Royal Oak, Oct. 4, 2021 | Ken Coleman

Munni Rahman, a mother of three elementary school students at Warren Consolidated Schools, said she was shocked when her school announced last week that it would be lifting its mask mandate by the end of the month. 

Macomb County never had a mask mandate in place. Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dropped the statewide mandate in June 2021, the decision to require masks in Macomb has been up to local school districts. 

“Warren Consolidated School District was one of the school districts that really stepped up in difficult circumstances and stood up to leadership and implemented the mass mandate back in the fall,” said Rahman. “I felt like this announcement just came out of nowhere. I was just thinking, are we out of this pandemic? What’s going on? I was just really in a state of shock. It didn’t make any sense to me.”

Debates around mask mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts in schools have been contentious from local school boards to the state Board of Education throughout the pandemic. But without guidance from the state or county levels, teachers and local school leaders have taken the brunt of the backlash from anti-mask parents. 

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said the county considered the county’s continuing decline in new daily COVID-19 cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations when making the decision. 

“I completely understand and sympathize with everyone who is sick and tired of COVID and just wants to move on with their lives. The only note of caution I would issue is that we also thought that COVID was essentially done with us last summer, only to see it come raging back. That was the reason for our caution. Hopefully the past will not be a prolog this time,” said Evans in a press release Friday. “This time I think we can feel hopeful that the light at the end of the tunnel is for real.” 

Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest school district, plans to keep its mask mandate in place, despite the announcement from Wayne County officials. 

Most states have dropped statewide mask mandates at this point in the pandemic, with only Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Illinois and Washington, D.C., having mask requirements still in place. 

Michigan rescinded its statewide mask mandate on June 22, 2021.


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered 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.