Michigan health officials recommending masks in K-12 schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration on Wednesday endorsed a recommendation for universal masking in K-12 school buildings, calling it a prevention measure to maximize in-person learning.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updated recommendations for schools, saying the guidance for the 2021-22 academic year reflects the most current recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on masking and prevention strategies for COVID-19 to help operate schools more safely.

State health officials said the updated recommendations are designed to help prevent transmission of the virus within school buildings, reduce disruptions to in-person learning and help protect vulnerable individuals and people who are not fully vaccinated.

Michigan Chief Medical Executive and MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said the department is issuing this guidance to help protect Michigan residents of all ages.

School districts in Michigan are allowed to make their own rules on masking since the guidance is a recommendation and not part of a state health department order. Whitmer said last week she has no plans to bring back a requirement that people mask up indoors.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS, said the department is issuing the guidance to help protect Michigan residents of all ages.

"We are committed to ensuring Michigan students and educators are safe in the classroom, including those who may not yet be vaccinated,” Khaldun said.

State health officials said in addition to consistent and correct mask use, other CDC strategies include promoting vaccination against COVID-19 for eligible staff and students and physical distancing in schools of at least 3 feet between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask-wearing by students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status.

"When it is not possible to maintain a three-foot physical distance, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking, screening testing, cohorting, and improved ventilation to help reduce transmission risk," the guidance says.

Ventilation was also identified as a CDC key strategy for schools by state health officials, including a recommendation to improve ventilation by opening multiple doors and windows, using fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows and making changes to HVAC or air filtration systems.

In June, state health officials recommended students and staff continue to wear masks, get vaccinations and social distance to avoid the spread of COVID-19. The state health department said it issued the interim recommendations for schools to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus within school buildings in an effort to reduce disruptions to in-person learning and help protect the unvaccinated.

The MDHHS guidance said while vaccines are "incredibly effective," the school environment brings together large groups of individuals who might not yet be fully vaccinated.

Children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible for vaccinations. 

Michigan’s weekly number of people getting an initial COVID-19 shot rose for the third straight week after having consistently dropped for two months.

The increase coincided with the spread of the delta variant – the most contagious coronavirus mutant yet – and a $5 million state sweepstakes designed to incentivize vaccinations.

There were about 41,000 first-dose immunizations last week, the most since the week of June 13-19. Fewer people received an initial dose in July than in June – roughly 192,000 vs. approximately 167,000 – but officials said vaccination rates always are lower in the middle of the summer.

About 64% of residents ages 16 and up have gotten at least one dose. The state’s goal is 70%.

Nearly half of Michigan residents live in counties where the CDC is urging the fully vaccinated people to wear masks in public indoor settings because transmission of the coronavirus is “high” or “substantial.”

The guidance affected 33 counties as of Monday — including large ones such as Oakland, Macomb and Ingham — up from 10 mostly small, rural counties when the CDC’s new recommendations were issued nearly a week ago. The counties are home to more than 4.5 million residents, 46% of the state’s population.

Michigan’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was 678 on Saturday, an increase from 241 two weeks before. The case rate, 76.8 per 100,000 people, was lower than in all but four states based on data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Associated Press contributed.