Masks, COVID tests and quarantines are going out of style this back-to-school season.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has loosened its COVID guidelines for K-12 schools just in time for the start of school in Michigan. But many Michigan districts were already taking steps toward the way things were before the pandemic.
This school year, many districts will abandon masking requirements, routine COVID testing for asymptomatic people, and quarantine requirements for people exposed to COVID. Many districts will also adopt shortened quarantine and isolation periods for those who test positive for COVID.
Michigan’s districts have had a patchwork of COVID guidelines since June 2021, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted the statewide mask mandate. This marks the second school year that COVID protocols have been left to the discretion of local districts.
Michigan has recorded over 2.7 million COVID cases and over 37,000 COVID-related deaths since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
Here’s a look at how some districts in the state are enforcing or loosening their COVID protocols:
Will masks be required in schools?
Michigan joins a nationwide shift away from mask requirements in schools. Last year, 75% of U.S. schools enforced mask-wearing for teachers and students at the start of the school year. That number has dwindled considerably.
Many districts across the state are promoting the same message: Masks are not required, but students and staff who choose to wear them will be fully supported.
Major districts like Grand Rapids Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools Community District, Dearborn Public Schools, and Lansing School District have all told families masks will not be required during the 2022-23 school year.
However, many districts have outlined some exceptions, requiring mask-wearing for people living with someone who is COVID-positive, those who have a confirmed exposure to someone COVID-positive, and for those experiencing COVID symptoms.
Ann Arbor Public Schools have structured their masking policies around the CDC’s community level classification system for COVID severity. According to a message posted by Superintendent Jeanice Swift, masks will be “welcomed indoors” when Washtenaw County is rated ‘low,’ “encouraged indoors” when the county is rated ‘medium’ and “strongly recommended” indoors when the county is rated ‘high.’ Washtenaw County is currently rated at the ‘high’ level.
Flint Community Schools has also adopted a slightly different masking policy. In a letter to Flint families on July 21, Superintendent Kevelin Jones said that masks will not be required but “recommended” for the 2022-23 school year, which started Aug. 3.
The district also issued an updated protocols guide on July 14 that says masks will be required on school buses “due to the closeness and mixing of students within the buses.”
Will social distancing be enforced in classrooms?
Some districts, including Flint and Lansing, are promoting social distancing in their classrooms this fall.
Flint’s updated guide encourages staff to support social distancing among students “as much as possible,” but doesn’t specify a distance. Lansing recommends that students and staff maintain 3 to 6 feet of distance from one another when possible.
What about routine testing?
A number of districts, including Detroit, Dearborn, Flint, and Lansing, do not plan to implement routine testing for people who are asymptomatic or had close contacts with infected people. Many schools abandoned such tests during the winter’s omicron variant surge because of the stress it put on resources and staff.
But districts will still have voluntary rapid tests available in house for students experiencing COVID symptoms in school.
How long do COVID-positive students and staff have to quarantine?
The CDC new guidance says quarantining is no longer recommended for students and staff who are merely exposed to COVID but haven’t tested positive. They are encouraged to wear a mask for 10 days — a guideline that many districts, including Dearborn, are adopting for the upcoming school year.
For people who test positive, many districts, including Grand Rapids, Dearborn, Royal Oak, Lansing, and Kalamazoo, have adopted the CDC’s shortened quarantine guidelines. That means having COVID-positive individuals isolate at home for five days and return on Day 6, if they remain masked until Day 10 and are fever-free for at least 24 hours. Those who refuse to wear a mask for days 6 to 10 will be unable to return to school and have to stay home for the full 10 days.
Grace Tucker is a reporting intern at Chalkbeat Detroit. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Aug. 25, 2022: A previous version of this story misstated the mask policy in Ann Arbor Public Schools. The district won’t require masks at any point, but will strongly recommend them if Washtenaw County is classified as having a ‘high’ rate of COVID cases by the CDC. The story also misstated the county’s current level. It is at the ‘high’ level.