Michigan officials say masks in schools 'critical' in letter to superintendents

Lansing — Universal indoor mask-wearing at schools is "critical" to ensuring students can continue learning in person, two top Michigan officials wrote in a letter to superintendents on Thursday.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Michael Rice, the state superintendent, signed the message, which came a day after Michigan reported a record number of new COVID-19 infections.

In addition to encouraging mask-wearing, the officials also recommended "regular testing" in school settings and advised superintendents to postpone or use remote technology to hold large gatherings involving more than 100 people.

Elizabeth Hertel, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, addresses the media before the COVID-19 vaccination facility opens.

"The benefits achieved by continuing in-person learning are vast while the risks associated with it can be reduced by implementing proper protocols to curb the transmission of COVID-19," the letter said.

Many schools have been on break over the last two weeks for Christmas and other holidays but will return on Monday amid rising concerns about the omicron variant.

The variant was first detected in the state on Dec. 9 and is believed to spread more quickly from person to person than delta and the original virus. It might also produce less severe illness.

As of Wednesday, the state had tracked 75 omicron infections, most of them in Metro Detroit.

"As omicron variant cases increase in Michigan, it is important for all schools to review their planned activities for events and gatherings," the letter from Hertel and Rice said. "MDHHS advises modifications to planned activities during and after school where the ability to maintain social distancing between people who live in different households cannot be maintained."

Overall, Michigan reported a daily record number of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with 25,858 tracked over two days for an average of 12,929, which was the highest average daily rate of the pandemic.

The previous record of 9,779 cases per day came on Nov. 20, 2020, more than one year ago.

On top of the high new case numbers, the state health department also reported that 3,659 adults were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the first time in two weeks the number of hospitalizations increased. On Monday, the tally was 3,629.

Over the first three days of the week, 26.9% of the COVID-19 tests tracked by the state brought positive results, a significant jump from the 19.1% reported the previous week.

"Our priority has remained keeping students safe,” Hertel said in a statement Thursday. "Children ages 5 and older now can get vaccinated. In addition to vaccination, we strongly recommend universal masking for students, teachers and staff.

"We have the tools to keep Michiganders safe, and we must continue to use them."

The letter to superintendents comes after mask orders in two Michigan counties expired earlier this month. Kalamazoo’s order expired on Dec. 17 and Genesee’s order expired on Dec. 22. Kent and Ottawa counties have orders that are set to expire on Jan. 3.

St. Clair County issued a new mask mandate on Tuesday for K-12 students which is in effect from Jan. 3-28.

“Given the looming threat of the Omicron variant on top of the already high case rates within the community, it is prudent to take pre-emptive action now to ensure in-person learning continues within our schools,” Annette Mercatante, the county’s medical health officer, said.

“We understand how difficult virtual schooling has been on both students and parents throughout the pandemic which is why we are putting mitigation strategies in place to reduce the impact," Mercatante, said. "It is clear that strong recommendations are not adequate to compel the level of compliance needed to mitigate the spread of this virus, which is why a temporary order is needed until the full impacts of Omicron are clarified.”

Including the new order in St. Clair, 10 of Michigan's 45 local health departments have active mask orders, which apply to school districts in 14 of the state's 83 counties.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has faced criticism from some for not requiring students to wear masks in K-12 schools this year. Instead, Whitmer and Hertel have encouraged local education leaders and county health departments to institute the mandates themselves.

Pontiac Public Schools announced it is moving students to remote learning from Jan. 3 until Jan. 17. Superintendent Kelley Williams posted a message saying the significant increase in COVID-19 cases impacting the Pontiac community and Oakland County prompted the move. Williams said students should log into their school computer on Jan. 3, and teachers will announce remote lessons and attendance will be taken.

In December, Macomb, Wayne, St. Clair and Oakland counties have reported the largest jumps in new COVID-19 cases per population in the state, according to a Detroit News analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of DPSCD, said he is reviewing current data and expects to make a decision this week as to whether to return in person or move to remote.

"We are concerned about the record high infection rate and are currently working through options for next week. Final decisions should be made and announced by today or tomorrow," Vitti said on Thursday.

DPSCD shifted to remote learning every Friday in December after rising COVID-19 cases caused concern and the district wanted more time to clean buildings.

Mike DeVault, superintendent of the Macomb County ISD, said on Thursday that he and local superintendents have been meeting the last two days to discuss COVID rates and school plans. As of Thursday, no one had made the choice to move into remote learning.

"No one is planning on going to remote as of this time starting school. We are all working on the issue," DeVault said.