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Masks are now optional for Detroit district students

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Some students attending summer school at Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts are going without face coverings now that masks are optional in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Grace Tucker / Chalkbeat

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Masks have come off for some students attending summer school in the Detroit district, and will continue to be optional for the coming school year.

The district’s mask mandate, in place since schools reopened in September 2020, lifted earlier this month after the June 30 expiration of an agreement the district had with the teachers union requiring masks.

The summer school session that began July 11 marked the first time since the start of the pandemic that students have been able to attend school without masks.

At a school board finance committee meeting Friday, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti indicated the masking option will continue once the school year begins in late August.

“It is voluntary until the CDC, state or local health departments mandate masks for indoor or outdoor use,” Vitti said, responding to a question from a parent who asked whether the district would continue some COVID protocols.

Last week, when First lady Jill Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visited summer classes at Detroit’s Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts, many of the students attending summer school were maskless. 

Of the 14 students in Camp Dinner Table’s cooking class, three were wearing masks. Down the hall, two of the six students in Adrienne Holloway’s English class were masked.

The mandate is lifting as the BA.5 omicron subvariant has prompted a surge in COVID cases, and caused some school districts across the nation to institute temporary mask requirements. As districts head into their fourth school year in the pandemic, recurring waves of COVID cases have prompted debate over what protocols are necessary to keep students and staff safe.

Flint Community Schools, which start on Aug. 3, sent back-to-school letters to parents and guardians Thursday, initially announcing that masks would be temporarily required indoors. Within several hours of the announcement, the district reversed its decision and said  the district would only recommend masks be worn.

The CDC recommends indoor masking in communities that have high case rates of COVID.

Aug. 29 is the first day of school for students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and in conjunction with voluntary masking, the district will scale back its COVID safety protocols this coming school year

Students and staff will no longer be universally tested for COVID every week, and the district will reduce testing to a randomized pool of 10% to 20% of the district’s population. The school district, however, plans to continue to provide vaccination sites in some schools.

Parent Ebony Hudson, whose daughter attends the Moses Field Center, backs the lifting of the mandate. 

 “I don’t think it should be mandated unless the numbers go up,” she said.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said union members are “fine with” voluntary masking at the moment. 

“People who want to continue to wear masks have the right to do so and those who want to exercise the option to not wear masks are doing that,” Martin said. “The main thing is making sure that teachers and staff are safe and remain safe.”

Going into the fall, he added, the teachers union is hoping to see the district provide a benchmark for COVID cases which would clarify what metrics, such as case positivity rates, would prompt the return of a mask mandate.

Vitti said during Friday’s finance committee meeting the district will continue to provide personal protection equipment to students and staff heading into the new school year regardless of whether a mask requirement is implemented. The district also will offer air purifiers or fans for classroom teachers who request them, he added. 

Chalkbeat Detroit reporting intern Grace Tucker contributed to this story.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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