Michigan health officials shift tone, 'strongly recommend' masks in schools

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan health officials took a more urgent tone Friday and issued a new COVID-19 guidance for schools that "strongly recommends" universal mask wearing in schools but does not make masks mandatory.

In a prior Aug. 4 guidance, the state health department didn't mention "universal masking" recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until the ninth paragraph of its release.

But Friday's Department of Health and Human Services' guidance noted that the department "strongly recommends universal masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19" in the headline and first paragraph of the release. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, left, Michigan’s chief medical executive, addresses the media as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer listens on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

Noting that kids younger than 12 years old aren't yet eligible for the vaccine, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said "layered prevention measures, including universal masking, must be put in place for consistent in-learning to keep kids, staff and families safe."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday in response to reporters' questions that her administration is still leaving decisions on whether students and teachers should be required to wear masks up to individual school districts.

Also on Thursday, the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics urged that everyone older than the age of 2 wear masks in schools this fall regardless of their vaccination status. Increasing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in recent weeks have spurred debate about mask wearing and vaccination policies.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updated its policies to reflect the CDC's most current recommendations, state health officials said Friday.  

"We are committed to ensuring Michigan students and educators are safe in the classroom, including those who may not yet be vaccinated," Chief Medical Executive  Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said in a statement.  

"MDHHS is issuing this guidance to help protect Michiganders of all ages. We continue to urge all eligible residents to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible as it is our best defense against the virus and the way we are going to end this pandemic."

The new guidance calls for all schools to promote vaccination for eligible students, staff and families and to require universal masking for students, staff and visitors regardless of community transmission rate or vaccination status.

The state health department noted its recommendations reflect CDC guidance, which also calls for schools to maintain physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students within classrooms combined with the indoor mask wearing. 

At least 6 feet is recommended between students and educators, and between educators/staff who are not fully vaccinated.

The CDC also says schools should not keep students home from school to maintain social distancing, due to the importance of in-person learning.  

Other federal recommendations include improved ventilation inside school buildings, and promotion of hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick and getting tested for COVID-19.

Schools should also work with local health department to facilitate contract tracing and quarantine of people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, and clean and disinfected surfaces with approved disinfectants at least once per day. 

"We will continue to monitor CDC guidance and update as needed ," MDHHS spokeswoman Chelsea Wuth said.

"MDHHS encourages all eligible Michiganders to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are able. The vaccine is our best protection against the virus and how we can end this pandemic together."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN