Whitmer orders masks for most K-5 students and transparency from schools on positive COVID cases

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, shown here in a file photo, has amended an executive order to require masks for K-5 students and more transparency from schools. (State of Michigan)

As the number of schools with COVID outbreaks surges in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has amended an executive order that requires most elementary students to wear masks.

The amendment also requires schools to publish information about positive or suspect COVID cases. The state has been criticized for being slow to report outbreaks among students and staff.

The amended order comes weeks after Whitmer nixed the idea of a mask mandate for K-5 students. On Friday, she announced a strengthening of that original mandate effective Oct. 5.

“It is now crystal clear that COVID-19 can be deadly to younger children, and that children who become infected at school can pass the virus to their parents, leading to community spread,” Whitmer said in the amended order. “In the absence of a widespread vaccine, wearing a covering over the nose and mouth remains the most effective tool to combat the spread of COVID-19, both in schools and the wider community.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said a stronger mask mandate for younger students is important because as the flu season approaches, the state is “in a precarious moment in our fight against COVID-19.”

“This new mask requirement is so important to protect students and educators, and to keep our schools open,” she said. “This year, it’s more important than ever that Michiganders across the state get their flu vaccine as soon as possible, mask up, and maintain at least 6 feet of physical distancing. Let’s all be smart and stay safe.”

The original return to school plan requires students in preschool through grade 12 to wear masks while they’re on school buses or in public areas, such as hallways and cafeterias. Students in grades 6-12 are already required to wear masks inside the classroom. But students in lower grades had not been required to wear masks in the classroom if they remained with the same group of students.

There was also no requirement in the plan or the current executive order for schools to report positive or suspect cases of COVID. But the amendment now requires that “school districts and nonpublic schools must publish information about any cases of a probable or confirmed COVID-19 positive individual present on school property or at a school function during the period of infection.”

Many school districts had already been requiring masks for K-5 students, even though it was not required. But some had not.

The broader mask mandate comes as the state is seeing a surge in the number of COVID outbreaks in K-12 schools. On Monday, state data showed there are 28 such outbreaks, up from 11 a week before.

Whitmer was asked during an August press conference whether the state would consider a stronger mask mandate for students. She said no, but added that “we strongly encourage masks for everyone, though. I hope that parents and students and teachers and administrators alike are hearing this.”

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