Wayne County imposes mask mandate for K-12 students, staff

Wayne County health officials on Friday issued an order requiring local school districts to have students and school staff to wear a face mask while in school and during school-sponsored indoor events, regardless of vaccination status.

The emergency order took effect immediately and applies to visitors at public, private and parochial educational settings, including day care centers, throughout Wayne County.

The public health order affects about 290,000 students — 226,000 students across 33 school districts and 108 public school academies serving 64,000 students as well as hundreds of school employees.

Last week, Wayne County Public Health officials issued “strong recommendations” that all school districts implement a COVID-19 safety plan that includes a universal mask requirement.

The decision to issue the countywide order was made this week because many students return to classrooms on Monday and COVID-19 cases are rising in out-Wayne County, said county spokeswoman Tiffani Jackson.

“We have been monitoring this, and the numbers are increasing. We are seeing 225 rising cases in out-Wayne County, not including Detroit, as on Wednesday,” Jackson said.

“We’ve been seeing national reports of school districts across the country who have already gone back, and some have hundreds and thousands of students who are quarantined. We are trying to be proactive and prevent a worst-case scenario from occurring."

Michigan's largest county followed Oakland County, which issued a similar mask mandate for students on Tuesday.

Macomb County health officials and school superintendents, meanwhile, are still contemplating possible strategies as Executive Mark Hackel said the county doesn't believe "there is one side or one-size-fits-all" approach. As of Friday, there is no change in the county's policy, Hackel spokesman John Cwikla said, meaning the policy is up to each school district.

Several Macomb districts have mask mandates, such as Warren Consolidated Schools, while others do not, including Utica Community Schools, the county's largest school district.

Other counties have issued mask mandates, including Genesee, Kalamazoo, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa, although some, like Genesee, only require masks for students in grades K-6.

Whitmer backs mask order

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who has defended her decision to forego a statewide student mask mandate — issued a statement following Wayne County's decision, saying the mask requirement brings the total number of school districts in Michigan with a mask policy to 179, covering 674,000 students or about 54% of students in traditional public schools.

"After 19 months of COVID, the science is clear: Vaccines and masks keep kids safe and help them continue learning in person," Whitmer said Friday.

"Districts and local public health leaders should keep working together to implement mask guidelines and create buy-in at the community level, which leads to better outcomes and better adherence to policies that keep kids, teachers, staff and parents safe."

Michigan's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun last week told reporters she advised Whitmer that a statewide mask requirement for students would help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Glenn Maleyko, superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools, which has 20,400 students starting school on Monday, welcomed the order on Friday, saying mask-wearing will keep students in school learning.

Andrea Daniell and her daughter Abbey, right, put a mask on son and brother, Brooks, before they play on the Defer Elementary School playground in Grosse Pointe. Daniel said she wants masks required for younger students who are vaccine ineligible but is open to older students making their own choice.

"I applaud them for doing the right thing," Maleyko said. "I don’t want to wear a mask, but it's the right thing to do. The whole thing is wearing the mask keeps kids in school."

Maleyko said he hears from parents every day on both sides of the masking issue. The district initially decided earlier this summer it would be mask optional, but on Monday, it approved its own mask mandate.

"Our team is meeting and we are looking at data. Initially, we didn’t have a mask mandate, but everything is changing. We felt after looking at the data we want to implement it now," he said.

Divisions in Grosse Pointe

Jon Dean, superintendent at Grosse Pointe Public School System, said Friday his Wayne County district accepts all mandates from Wayne County health experts and is looking forward to the first day of school on Sept. 7.

"We are focused on keeping the kids safe and getting back to school. The Wayne County Health Department, they are the experts in health," Dean said.

The district, which had been mask optional but encouraged before Friday's order, had planned to review local health data again next week, the week before school starts, to consider updating its own policy, he said.

"We expect the kids to do a great job wearing masks and our adults, too," Dean said. "Our staff is focused on teaching kids, not masks."

Monica Palmer does not support the countywide mandate. Palmer, whose daughter was enrolled in Grosse Pointe schools last year until she removed her and homeschooled, said Friday she is urging the school board to stick with its own decision to recommend but not require masks, despite the county mandate.

"I would like the school board to vote and establish the policy to have masks recommended but not required. They have the authority to do so," Palmer said.

But other parents praised Friday's development.

Parent Jen Evans celebrated the news of a mask mandate for her district, which chose to make masks optional ahead of the county's order.

"I think it's fantastic," said parent Jen Evans, whose two children attend Grosse Pointe schools. "Ideally, I would have rather seen it at the state level and taken off the individual counties. But at the end of the day, I'm glad someone stood up and mandated this for now.

"I think we can all agree we all want our kids in school face to face, and this is the only way this can happen safely."

Exemptions in the order are similar to those in Oakland County and include students with developmental conditions who have a formal education plan and for whom the use of a face-covering "would inhibit the person's access to education."

The order also does not apply to "persons who have a medical condition confirmed in writing" from a doctor licensed in Michigan and students with disabilities who cannot safely wear a mask.

Palmer said she knows some parents have children who can't wear a mask.

"And they are stuck with no choice just a few days before school. I don't know what these parents are going to do," she said.

The largest school district in Wayne County and in the state, Detroit Public Schools Comunity District, already has a universal mask policy for students and staff, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated.

Commission mostly supportive

Most Wayne County commissioners supported the health department's decision.

Wayne County Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch, D-Detroit, says it would be irresponsible not to “take action to keep vulnerable people safe,” and he hailed the mandate.

“We’ve seen for years schools require vaccinations for measles,” Kinloch said. “We have history to show these mandates reduce the infection levels of students in our school systems. It’s a well-established precedent.

“This is a virus that has killed millions of people around the world. I had not pushed for a mandate and hoped people would make that choice on their own, but I am happy to see it.”

Terry Marecki, R-Livonia, the lone Republican on the county commission, called the mask issue a “no-win situation” and said she’s received mixed feedback from the people she represents.

“No matter what you do, you’re going to tick off half the people,” Marecki said. “But local school boards talk to parents in their communities. They should be making the decisions for their districts, not the county.”

Monique Baker McCormick, D-Detroit, chairs the Wayne County Commission’s Health and Human Services Committee. She said that while the commission has no power to mandate masks countywide, “it’s up to the health department if they mandate or not.”

“We cannot mandate or force. We can only advise and let our voice be heard,” McCormick said Friday. 

She said the county has traditionally followed state guidelines, but felt that making a local decision was important in this case, given low vaccination rates and the lack of opportunity for kids under 12 years old to be vaccinated, and overall poor community health.

“It’s a sticky situation when you go into communities telling them what to do, but what’s also what the state did,” Baker McCormick said. 

Most community pressure has been in favor of a mask mandate, Baker McCormick said.

“It’s damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” she said.

Alisha Bell, D-Detroit, chair of the Wayne County Commission, said that if there were such a mandate, it would be “something wonderful for the safety of our children.”

Bell noted that while children 12 and older can be vaccinated, younger children cannot, and need the protection.

“If the science and the data is there to support it, I certainly wouldn’t object,” Bell said.

Staff Writer Mike Martindale contributed.