Changes to state and federal guidance on mask-wearing sent a new dose of uncertainty through Michigan school communities in recent days, sparking thorny debates and confusion about who should wear masks at school and under what circumstances.
But little seems likely to change in classrooms across the state: Federal health authorities clarified over the weekend that schools should continue with their current safety precautions, which generally include mask requirements.
“For the most part, the mask requirement will remain the same for the year,” said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, noting that the district was still reviewing state and federal guidance on the matter and will release more details this week. “There will be flexibility for vaccinated employees and students if everyone in the room is vaccinated or if they are outside.”
Another of the state’s largest districts, Grand Rapids Public Schools, said this week that masks would still be required indoors, but that masks would no longer be mandatory outdoors.
While masks in schools aren’t bound for the scrap heap yet, the sudden changes to official guidance on mask-wearing underscore the challenges schools will face as they try to reopen safely.
The confusion for schools started last week, when officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that vaccinated people did not need to wear masks or maintain physical distance under most circumstances. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer soon followed with similar guidance.
Schools weren’t mentioned in the initial recommendations, even though the guidance is especially challenging for schools to follow. Children under age 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated.
“We clearly have a group of students who can’t get vaccinated,” said Steve Matthews, superintendent of the Novi Community School District in suburban Detroit, on Friday. “But the majority of teachers are vaccinated. How do you encourage the 10-year-old to continue to wear their masks when the adults don’t have to?”
Michigan officials updated their guidance to align with the federal health agency on Tuesday. “We are providing guidance to schools recommending that they complete the remainder of the school year with the indoors COVID-19 mitigation measures they already have in place to keep students and families safe — including masking up indoors,” said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, noting that these are not requirements.
In online chat groups, parents who have vocally opposed most COVID-19 safety measures celebrated the news and began pressing their school districts in suburban, majority-white communities like Saline and Owosso to allow vaccinated students to attend classes unmasked.
By contrast, the new guidance was received with skepticism by some in Detroit, where Black communities suffered high COVID-19 death tolls and have been reluctant to send children back to school.
“Keep the masks on,” Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent-activist with 482Forward, an education advocacy group based in Detroit, told Chalkbeat. “It’s too soon.”
Meanwhile, district officials said that the logistical problems raised by the new guidance showed how challenging it will be to loosen mark requirements in schools.
For example: To enroll in a Michigan public school, parents have to share their child’s vaccination history with public health officials or sign a waiver explaining why they choose not to do so. But that requirement doesn’t yet extend to the COVID-19 vaccines because federal authorities approved them on an emergency basis and haven’t yet received full approval.
“It makes it very difficult for us to say, ‘If you’ve been vaccinated you no longer have to wear a mask, because we can’t go out and collect that information,” said Bill Good, spokesman for Ferndale Public Schools in suburban Detroit. “It’s really hard to go on the honor system when you have immunocompromised students who deserve an education just like everyone else.”
Ferndale will continue to require masks for everyone in its school buildings through the end of the school year and will reevaluate the policy over the summer.