Michigan pediatricians call for universal masking in schools, preschools

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — An association that features more than 1,500 Michigan pediatricians is recommending that everyone older than the age of 2 wear masks in schools this fall regardless of their vaccination status.

The Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued the guidance on Thursday amid increases in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that could mark the beginning of a fourth surge in the state. Meanwhile, most Michigan schools will reopen for their new year in the coming weeks, spurring debates about mask and vaccination policies.

Emmanuel Murua teaches a computer applications class at O.L. Smith Middle School, in Dearborn, May 24, 2021.

“The recommendation for universal masking of all children older than 2 years is one of multiple measures to reduce transmission in the school setting," said Dr. Sharon Swindell, a pediatrician and past president of the academy's Michigan chapter. "Currently, children under age 12 do not have the option to be vaccinated, vaccination rates remain low in 12-18 year-olds, some members of the school community cannot be vaccinated due to underlying medical and immune system conditions."

The organization issued a statement Thursday, saying increases in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths have concerned medical and education professionals, who "wish to bring children back into classrooms while minimizing the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak."

On Tuesday, the Michigan Board of Education voted in favor of a resolution supporting independence for local school districts to make "scientifically informed decisions," including on "mandates for universal masking" at all school facilities and events for students, teachers and visitors.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has also recommended universal masking in K-12 school buildings. But the ultimate decisions are being left up to individual districts.

The policy choices come as Michigan's COVID-19 metrics show the virus is gaining steam in the state and portions of the southern United States experience significant surges that are again testing hospital capacity.

A fourth surge in COVID-19 is possible in Michigan and as many as 6,000 more residents could die because of the virus this fall, according to a presentation released Wednesday by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Experts are tying the increases in cases and hospitalizations directly to the more contagious delta variant.

While deaths linked to the virus have remained low, case numbers and the percentage of tests bringing positive results have been trending upward for longer than a month now. On Wednesday, the number of adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 745 across the state, a 153% increase over the 294-person total 12 days earlier

Nationally, the number of hospitalizations among children is higher than it's ever been, according to the presentation released Wednesday by the state health department.

"With return to school year, lack of layered mitigation measures will likely mean increases in cases and severe outcomes among children," the presentation said.

As it stands, multiple of Michigan's current COVID-19 metrics are in a worse position than they were one year ago as schools were preparing to start their terms. On Aug. 11, 2020, the state reported 796 new cases. On Wednesday, the state reported a two-day case average of 1,393 new cases per day.