Washtenaw, Ingham counties issue mask orders for schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Two more Michigan counties issued mandatory mask orders on Thursday for K-12 schools along with separate orders requiring isolation or quarantine that allow for enforcement.

The Washtenaw County and the Ingham County health departments each issued an order requiring face masks indoors.

Both departments also issued second orders, saying schools and individuals in those settings must adhere to specific isolation and quarantine measures following the identification of close contacts, household exposures or confirmed COVID-19 cases.

While isolation and quarantine are standard procedures for preventing additional spread of the illness when cases have been identified, the Washtenaw order allows for enforcement, "if or when necessary."

"Violations of either order will be enforced under the terms of Michigan’s Public Health Code, including, but not limited to, misdemeanor enforcement and/or civil monetary penalties," Washtenaw officials said in a statement.

The Ingham order said "local health departments are authorized to carry out and enforce the terms of this order."

Both orders go into effect Tuesday, the day most school children in Michigan return to school. They cover more than 47,500 students in Washtenaw County and 44,000 students in Ingham County.

In another Thursday development, Genesee County health officials expanded their existing mask order from just K-6 students to all K-12 students starting Tuesday.

Washtenaw and Ingham join several counties across Michigan, including Wayne and Oakland, that have imposed mask orders for K-12 schools. Others with mask mandates, include Kalamazoo, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa.

Prior to Thursday's developments, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said the mask requirements in effect covered 674,000 students or about 54% of students in traditional public schools.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail said she issued the two public health orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools and other educational settings and to foster a healthy environment for in-person learning.

"We are grateful for the collaboration with our local schools and districts that have already required masks and continue to work with us on isolation and quarantine procedures," Vail said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, our trends are going in the wrong direction, and it’s crucial that we cover the gaps left behind in areas where mask requirements were not in place, including but not limited to daycare centers, childcare centers, preschools, youth programs and private schools," she said.

Ingham County officials said 97% of students in public schools are already attending a district where masks have been required.

Washtenaw County is at high COVID-19 transmission levels. County officials said masks will be required to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 while transmission remains high or substantial, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Data Tracker.

"We are grateful to our local schools and districts that have already done the work to require masks and that continue to work closely with us on isolation and quarantine measures," said Jimena Loveluck, health officer with Washtenaw County Health Department.

"Unfortunately, we are trending in the wrong direction, and it’s imperative that we use all of our tools to prevent and control COVID in educational settings and provide in-person learning as safely as possible," Loveluck said in a statement.

Health officials in Ingham County said they had a 515% increase in new cases in kids 17 or younger during the two week period of Aug. 12-25 compared to the two-week period of July 1-14.

The Washtenaw mask order will remain in effect until community transmission for the county is “moderate” or lower for at least 14 consecutive days, or until further notice from Loveluck, the county says.

The order applies to public, private, vocational and charter schools that provide pre-K through 12th-grade education in Washtenaw County as well as any school-related extracurricular activities or athletics.

Washtenaw County's seven-day cumulative COVID-19 case rate is 100.9 per 100,000 people and the county had an average of 53 cases per day between Aug. 24-30, health officials said.

On Wednesday, the Washtenaw health department confirmed 117 cases and two hospitalizations. Test positivity is 3.7% for the same time period, a decrease from the prior week, officials said.

Starting on Thursday, health officials said case rates by age group for kids age 5-11 and 12-17 years will be added to two-week snapshots published weekly using local data.

"We have evidence of low transmission in classrooms, and this is good news for maintaining in-person learning. But we cannot remove key components like masks, isolation, and quarantine and expect similar results," Loveluck said.

A letter the Allegan County Health Department sent to parents whose children were in close contact with someone who had COVID-19 drew backlash.

Multiple high-profile Facebook posts this week focus on a "warning notice" that was dated Friday. The three-page letter informed the parents, whose names were redacted in posts, that their child was a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and needed to quarantine for 14 days.

The letter said the parents were required to cooperate with the department and if there was "non-compliant behavior" that created "an emergency situation," a court order may be sought.

"Upon issuance of this court order, he/she may be taken into protective custody to protect the public's health," the letter said. "In such event, you will then be afforded the opportunity for a hearing in circuit court within 72 hours, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays."