Students across Michigan’s most populous county will have to wear masks inside their school buildings, after Wayne County’s health department on Friday issued an order requiring the face coverings.
The order applies to local school districts, charter schools, and day care centers. It covers grades prekindergarten through the 12th grade.
With that action, Wayne County became the latest in Michigan to order schools to require masks for all or some students and staff. Oakland County’s health department issued an order Tuesday. And in the last two weeks, mandates were issued for schools in Allegan, Kent, Ottawa, Genesee, and Kalamazoo counties. At the same time, a growing number of school districts have reversed earlier decisions to make wearing masks optional in schools and have now made them mandatory.
The school year officially begins Sept. 7, but many districts and charter school start earlier.
The order in the county, which includes Detroit Public Schools Community District, comes during a national firestorm over whether students should wear masks to protect against COVID as its delta variant surges across the country. Across the country, the debate has pitted states against local school boards, and parents against parents.
In Michigan, the state has stayed out of the fray, merely recommending schools adopt policies that require masks be worn by everyone inside school. The lack of action from the state, which issued a mask mandate last year, has angered some school officials who are facing vocal divisions in their communities.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in a statement that followed the Wayne County announcement, applauded districts that have implemented mask mandates.
“As of today, 179 districts totaling over 53% of Michigan students, are covered by mask requirements implemented by their school district or local county health department,” Whitmer said. “That number has increased substantially over the last few weeks, and we expect to see that trend continue as the first day of school approaches.
Protests have followed district decisions to either require masks or to make them optional. Earlier this week, hundreds of people showed up outside the Oakland County building to protest the health department order. That same day, parents protesting in favor of masks showed up outside Macomb County’s health department in Mt. Clemens.
Wayne County enrolls 262,830 students in 33 school districts and 108 charter schools.
Prior to Friday’s order, about a dozen districts in the county had already planned to require masks for all or some students. The Detroit school district, the state’s largest district, was among those with a mask mandate.
Another dozen districts in the county were making masks optional. It is unclear what the mask policies are in the remaining districts because the information isn’t readily available on their websites.
Mask debates, like school reopening debates a year ago, are being driven by U.S. partisan politics, as Republican leaders have sought to prevent school districts from requiring masks and vaccines. That pattern seemingly holds true in Michigan’s latest round of controversy, according to Chalkbeat’s mask policy tracker, which includes current policies for about one third of Michigan’s districts.
Of the 102 traditional public school districts that have made masks optional according to the tracker, 91 are in counties that went for Trump in 2020. Of the 109 districts requiring masks for at least some students, 75 are in counties that went for Biden.
Mask policies have sparked fierce debate among parents in the Plymouth-Canton School District, a Wayne County district that is among the state’s largest.
Anti-mask parents cheered the district’s initial rules, which made masks optional for students. But district leaders reversed course in recent days, saying that masks would be required for all students when cases in Wayne County reached a certain threshold of COVID risk — one that had already been reached amid a surge of new cases.
Jennie Sweet-Cushman, whose two children attend Salem High School in the district, signed a petition calling for a mask requirement.
“The alternative is that it puts at least some students in jeopardy, and some staff in jeopardy of contracting the virus,” she said. “I recognize that parents love to make decisions for their own children, but it goes beyond their own children, it affects all of our children.”
Mike Kompoltowicz was so incensed by Plymouth-Canton’s move to require masks that he began planning to move his kindergartner and third grader to another district. His children don’t like wearing masks all day, he said, and he believes the rules infringe on his parental right to make decisions for them.
With a countywide mandate in place, he would have to travel a long way to find a public district that isn’t requiring masks. He and his wife are reluctantly considering home-schooling their children, which they believe would have negative social consequences for them.
“The right thing to do for kids is to be in a classroom,” he said. “If you want to send your kids to school in a mask, do it. But nobody should be forced to do anything.”
Gabriela Islas knows that wearing a mask at school won’t be easy for her children, ages 14, 9, and 7. That’s one reason she opted to enroll them in Plymouth-Canton’s virtual learning program last year.
But a year of online learning convinced her that the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the challenges of wearing a mask at school.
“It was a shock when (district leaders) were like, ‘Well, it’s only a recommendation,’” she recalled.
Now that the district reversed course, and with the Wayne County mandate in place, her children are ready to go back to school — with masks, which she believes will keep them and other unvaccinated children safe.
“They know that if we want to stay in school that masks will help us avoid any quarantining or going back to virtual,” she said.