Ann Arbor Public Schools students and staff returned to school Monday with a two-week indoor mask mandate, a move some applauded as a trio of respiratory illnesses sweep through Michigan, while others expressed skepticism.
District Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift announced the mask rule on Sunday, telling parents the goal was to “reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and related absenteeism and to prioritize health and in-school learning” as students and staff returned from winter break.
The announcement came two days after Kerr Swift sent a message to families strongly encouraging masking. It also came as neighboring Wayne County sent a notice to school districts located there recommending that students mask up post-break.
“We all understand the critical importance of our students and staff being present for in-school learning on every day possible,” Kerr Swift said Sunday.
Kerr Swift told Bridge Michigan on Monday that the district saw an uptick in staff illness on Saturday night and Sunday, which prompted the mask requirement. She said the district is seeing illness across four main categories: COVID-19, flu, and RSV, along with strep.
“We’re seeing that it’s really about the circulation of viruses,” she told Bridge.
Mask rule draws mixed response from parents
The district closed three schools for one day and two schools for two days in December due to staff illness. Students did not have virtual learning those days.
Julia Blough, who has children in eighth and 11th grades, recalled how a year ago her children were home learning remotely, which was not a good experience. She said she welcomed the masking requirement, though she wished it had been communicated earlier last week.
“My thought is that we should do whatever it takes to get the most kids at school, for the most number of days,” Blough said.
Other parents said they are worried the requirement will last longer than two weeks.
Amy Crawford, the mother of an elementary school student, told Bridge she’s worried the district has larger issues if masks are the only things keeping the schools from shutting down.
While Kerr Swift described students as having “muscle memory” related to earlier mask orders, Crawford said she feels there are “almost flashbacks to previous school years when the schools were closed for so long.”
Joanna Spencer-Segal, a mother of two elementary school students, told Bridge she is concerned about “a lack of transparency” around how the masking decision was made and whether the decision was evidence-based.
Spencer-Segal is a physician scientist and board member of the group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return, which advocates for in-person learning and evidence-based pandemic procedures.
“I know that well-fitted medical masks are a really important tool that we use in the health care setting to prevent the transmission of respiratory infections,” she said.
But she said she worries that masking isn’t going to significantly change transmission rates and that schools will still have staffing concerns that could lead to school closures. She said many parents were “caught off guard” by the district’s decision.
Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia said the Ann Arbor school district regularly communicates with the health department if there are illness clusters. She said Monday that she’s not sure if the district directly asked for health department guidance on the mask requirement but that the department was “very aware” the district would be having a requirement post-break.
“This is absolutely one of those tools that make sense to use when there are respiratory illnesses around, but it’s not a be-all, end-all,” she said, adding that staying home when sick, having high-quality ventilation and getting vaccinated to protect against illnesses like COVID-19 and the flu are also important to reducing illness.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Washtenaw County at “medium” level for COVID-19 community spread, meaning the agency recommends that people at high risk for getting very sick wear masks indoors. The county’s risk level has been “medium” since Dec. 8, according to the CDC.
A leading epidemiologist in metro Detroit applauded the school district. Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research for Corewell Health East, said masks have proven successful in combating not only COVID-19 but also the respiratory illnesses common in the winter.
“Taking COVID out of the equation, it’s not a bad idea for schools to do this in the winter,” said Sims, who said he asks his own children to wear masks while in school.
Although flu and RSV cases are falling, Sims said masks still provide protection from illnesses that can keep students out of class. “When we had mask mandates, there was almost no flu, almost no RSV. That’s worth it,” he said.
The Washtenaw County health department’s website, which has data for the last quarter of 2022, shows new RSV hospitalizations peaked in early November. Flu hospitalizations also trended down in late December. COVID-19 hospitalizations were at their second highest point of the last quarter in the last week of December.
Extended mask requirement is a possibility
Ann Arbor students, staff, and visitors are required to wear masks in school buildings through Jan. 20. High school students have exams and partial days next week, according to the district calendar. Students and staff are off next Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
Kerr Swift said the district is monitoring attendance data to help determine if the mask requirement will be extended. She said information can “change at the very last hour.”
“Our commitment is that we will communicate often and we will communicate just as soon as we have clarity on what we’re seeing,” she said.
Spencer-Segal said her young children, who are in kindergarten and third grade, were disappointed, but she said it was helpful that she could give them an end date for the mask rules.
The Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools, which describes itself as a group that puts learning and safety first, said it is supportive of the Ann Arbor district’s decision. Nicole Kessler, lead organizer for Oakland County, said the district can serve as an example to other school districts.
“We’re thrilled that they took that measure. Coming back from any extended break has always traditionally been a time where we see an increase in cases more in school because (they) have been socializing more, traveling and things like that. And to have a very limited mask order for two weeks could go a long way at reducing illness in school and ultimately keep more kids in school.”
Both Kessler and Spencer-Segal said they are not aware of any other schools in the state that have a masking requirement.
Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.
Isabel Lohman is a reporter for Bridge Michigan. You can reach her at email@example.com.