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Whitmer: School districts should be the ones making 'hard decisions' about masks

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended her decision to forego a statewide student mask mandate Monday, arguing Michigan finds itself in circumstances much different than last year when executive orders were one of the only options available to protect people. 

Now there are vaccines, and better mask and social distancing guidelines, she told reporters at a Monday press conference. 

“We now have tools so that we can take action to protect ourselves and those around us,” Whitmer said. “And we know that districts in large measure wanted the ability to make those decisions at the local level.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer takes questions from the press during an economic development announcement in Lansing on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Whitmer defended her decision to forego a statewide student mask mandate Monday, arguing local school districts need to make "hard decisions."

Nearly 35% of Michigan students are in districts that have already implemented mask requirements, she said, adding she was hopeful other schools would adopt similar guidelines. School districts should be working with parents, teachers, paraprofessionals and bus drivers to keep people safe, she said.

“It’s not comfortable to make these hard decisions,” Whitmer said. “If anyone knows that, it’s me.”

The K-12 Alliance of Michigan — a group of education leaders for K-12 schools in Genesee, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties — pushed back against Whitmer's comments Monday by reiterating their call for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to develop a response plan to the COVID-19 delta variant.

The state health department or local health departments should make mitigation decisions including any requirements regarding mask usage, the group said. 

"Expecting educators to make these critically important health decisions instead is putting all of our schools in a dangerous position regardless of what decision any individual district makes," said Ken Gutman, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools superintendent and president for the K-12 Alliance board.

"It’s time for state and local health agencies to step up and fulfill their responsibilities to lead the effort on what it will take to keep our students safe this year," he said.

Last week, Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun told reporters she advised the governor that a statewide mask requirement for student would help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

"I have recommended that if a mask mandate were in place, and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools," Khaldun responded when asked if she advised Whitmer and the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, Elizabeth Hertel, to impose a mask mandate for schools.

Khaldun said there are “many other things” to consider when debating such a requirement and she said her “lane” was to provide public health guidance.

In addition to several school districts that have adopted mask mandates, several county health departments have issued orders requiring mask usage for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The state has recommended schools require masks for students but has not mandated the measure as the state's cases and hospitalizations increase. 

Michigan's COVID-19 hospitalization and new infection numbers have been trending upward for a month. As of Monday, the state had recorded 933,394 COVID cases and 20,123 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The Michigan Health & Hospital Association is now tracking more than 1,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide, said spokeswoman Ruthanne Sudderth.

Whitmer on Monday said her pandemic response decisions “always have been informed by the science.”

“I think it's important that we make the science the centerpiece of the work that we do but certainly we’ve got to navigate a number of factors,” Whitmer said, noting the availability of vaccines as one of those factors. 

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.