Michigan’s top medical expert tells Gov. Whitmer a school mask mandate would reduce COVID spread

In front of a classroom white board, a student in a yellow sweater wearing a bright yellow mask sits next to a student in a black sweatshirt with a black mask. They are talking to another student seated in a desk several feet away with a red shirt and a black face mask holding her hand to her chest in the middle of speaking.
Michigan’s top doctor is urging a statewide mask mandate for schools, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has thus far said no such ban is planned. (Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat)

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Wednesday she has told Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that a statewide school mask mandate would reduce the spread of COVID among children.

The acknowledgement is the first public indication of debate within the Whitmer administration about whether the state should renew a school mask mandate similar to what state officials ordered during the 2020-21 school year.

Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the department for which Khaldun works, have stopped short of mandating masks when classrooms reopen, instead issuing guidance that “strongly recommends” masks.

The result is a patchwork of policies that vary between the state’s about 900 traditional public school districts and charters, with tempers flaring among school leaders frustrated the state appears to be passing the buck to them.

Wednesday’s news conference increased that frustration, according to school leaders who spoke to Bridge Michigan, as the state government’s top doctor said a mask mandate would slow infections in schools, yet the governor continued to decline to require students to mask up.

“I have recommended that if a mask mandate were in place, and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” Khaldun said during a virtual news conference that included data showing projections of increases in infections among students.

When asked why the governor has failed to issue a school mask mandate, Khaldun said there are many issues that go into a decision about school masking policies and that she would “defer to the director,” referencing MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel.

Whitmer spokesperson Robert Leddy issued a statement to Bridge that continued to put the onus for masks on county health departments, superintendents, and school boards.

“While the vast majority of middle school and high school students are eligible for the safe and effective vaccines, we know that face coverings can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect younger students who do not have access to the vaccine yet,” Leddy wrote. “As Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said, these smart public health protocols are only effective if everyone works together to protect each other. That’s why school districts and local health departments should work together to put in place universal mask policies to keep students safe and ensure that in-person learning can continue this year.”

According to Leddy, nearly 60 school districts have issued face mask mandates. Those districts enroll about 250,000 of the state’s more than 1.4 million students (about 18%). Among those that have announced mask mandates: districts in Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Ann Arbor.

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are rising in Michigan, with state officials projecting a rise in hospitalizations and deaths over the next four to six weeks.

A model created by University of Michigan Medicine and distributed by the state Wednesday projected between 3,937 and 6,177 COVID-related deaths in the four months from August through November; that compares to 4,391 deaths connected to the virus in the four months from March to June, a period that included the state’s peak number of cases.

U-M epidemiologist Josh Petrie last week told Bridge the projections are worst-case scenarios because vaccinations are leveling off. Statewide, Michigan’s vaccination rate among 16 and older is 61%, while 29% of those 12-15 are vaccinated.

Vaccines are not available for those younger than 12.

The proportion of total new COVID cases among Michiganders age 19 and younger is growing, and the U-M model projects 204 to 428 hospitalizations of children between August and November.

You can see the complete data package released by MDHHS here.

While hospitalizations among youth are low, the number of children hospitalized nationwide from COVID complications is higher than it’s ever been, at about one new admission per 400,000 people ages 0-17. About half of those children have no reported underlying conditions, according to data released by MDHHS. 

Michigan has not currently experienced a similar spike in child hospitalizations, but state health officials said they worry that an increase is likely as the contagious delta variant spreads.

One chart released by the state Wednesday illustrated the impact masks can make in a classroom setting. The length of time it takes for there to be a greater than 50% chance that an infected child spreads COVID to another child is just three hours if those in the class aren’t wearing masks, but 120 hours if everyone is properly wearing face coverings.

Face masks have become a political litmus test, with some GOP-led states banning school mask mandates, including Florida, Texas, and Tennessee, and 10 states making masks mandatory in schools, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, and Oregon.

Health departments in at least three Michigan counties, Genesee, Kalamazoo, and Allegan, have issued mask mandates for schools in their counties.

“I’m concerned about what is potentially happening with our schools,” Khaldun said Wednesday.

She acknowledged the state has the legal ability to issue a mask mandate, but that “at this time, the governor and (MDHHS) Director (Hertel) have not made that determination.”

The lack of a statewide order on masks is frustrating school leaders, who are facing pressure from parents on both sides of the issue. Some school board meetings across the state have become contentious as parents and community members voice their views on masks.

“They (state officials) are washing their hands of responsibility, and it’s unacceptable,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a school advocacy organization. “If the state’s top doc is recommending something to the administration, we hope they would take it very seriously.

“We have maintained since Day One that decisions surrounding the health and safety of students should be made by health experts,” not school boards and superintendents, McCann said. 

State guidelines that “strongly recommend” masks, but don’t mandate them, leave local officials to make decisions.

“It’s going to be very piecemeal,” McCann said.

For example, in Ingham County in central Michigan, about half the school districts have issued mask mandates for at least some grade levels, and the remaining districts are recommending masks, said Jason Mellema, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District.

Mellema said school leaders in his county would prefer a clear yes or no on masks from the state.

“It’s challenging as schools are trying to sort this out when we don’t have clear parameters from a state level,” Mellema said.

Hertel, the state health director, was not available for comment Wednesday. 

A statement released by department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin reiterated the state strongly recommends students wear face masks, and that “we applaud” districts that have required masks,” and “encourage all Michigan districts to follow their lead.

“We continue to work closely with school administrators and local health departments to advise on masking and prevention strategies and will continue to monitor the school population closely,” Sutfin said.

Nicole Kessler, a parent of an elementary school student in Birmingham Public Schools in Oakland County, said she is tired of the finger-pointing.

“If our kids go back to school without masks required and kids get really sick or die or schools need to revert to online learning, this will be a major policy failure,” said Kessler, founder of a pro-mask parent group called Oakland County Parents for Safe In Person School. 

“Parents are sick of the state, county, and districts passing the buck. Someone needs to step up to protect our kids.”

This story was originally published by Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit and nonpartisan newsroom that covers the state.

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