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Gov. Whitmer requires masks for young students in Michigan

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order Friday that will require young students in much of Michigan to wear masks while in their classrooms.

The state had required students in sixth grade and up to wear masks in classrooms and recommended them for younger students. But the new policy expands the requirement to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The order takes effect on Oct. 5.

"Given the higher incidence of cases among children in recent months, and the clear effectiveness of masking as a mitigation strategy, requiring the use of masks in the classroom even for younger students is a reasonable and necessary requirement in Regions at Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start Plan," the new executive order says.

Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are in Phase 5 of the plan so the policy won't apply to those regions of the state. Prior orders had recommended, but not required a face covering for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

With flu season approaching, Michigan is "in a precarious moment in our fight against COVID-19," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive.

"This new mask requirement is so important to protect students and educators, and to keep our schools open," Khaldun said. "This year, it’s more important than ever that Michiganders across the state get their flu vaccine as soon as possible, mask up and maintain at least six feet of physical distancing."

The new order also requires school districts, including private schools, to publish information "about any cases of a probable or confirmed COVID-19 positive individual present on school property or at a school function during the period of infection." The order allows the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to issue directives on the subject.

Robert Gordon, director of the state health department, told lawmakers Wednesday that Michigan is facing "increasing risk" of COVID-19 as schools and universities have reopened for classes.

"We have kids back in school. It’s a wonderful thing to get an education. It’s a source of risk," Gordon said. "We have college students, many of them back on campus, some of them back in classes. Education is really important. It’s a source of risk."

Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest school district, already has a policy requiring students in kindergarten and up to wear face masks during in-person school. Staff are also required to wear masks. 

Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said only 25% of its 51,000 students are attending school in person and have been wearing facial coverings since the first day of school on Sept. 8.

Wilson said the district only has a few exceptions for students or staff with medical conditions who are unable to tolerate a mask.

Gerald Hill, superintendent of the West Bloomfield School District, said his K-8 students, who began face-to-face instruction in schools in August, already wear face masks to classes every day. High school students are all at home with online learning.

“That will be no problem for us. It was a strong recommendation for us,” Hill said of the governor’s return to school plan. “In our plan, we were following all the required and all the recommended.”

Hill said younger students are not struggling to wear the masks, though in some cases teachers may need to remind them to pull a facial covering up if it has slipped down.

“Kids are wiggly. They may slip down. There hasn't been a problem. Teachers are needing to remind them,” Hill said. 

Supplies of masks were not an issue for either DPSCD or West Bloomfield, officials said.

Most families brought their own; both districts have ample supplies and are getting more in every week.

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director of Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA), said on Friday that many Michigan districts were already requiring face masks for all students, and he did not think Friday’s order will cause much consternation among school officials.

“For the most part, folks had been ready for this to happen. It’s a not a big leap for members,” Spadafore said.

The requirement schools begin reporting COVID-19 case data will give districts more work to do, Spadafore said, but also allow superintendents to weigh in on how new and ongoing outbreaks are reported by the state health department.

Spadafore said MASA officials have asked the state health department for an opportunity to provide feedback on such reporting issues, including whether student outbreaks happen in a school or outside the school.

“We want to make sure the information we're asked to post is accurate before posting,” Spadafore said. "You can't unring that bell once it's been rung."

cmauger@detroitnews.com