Oakland County to require masks for more than 200,000 students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Oakland County health officials are requiring masks for students and staff in all preschools and K-12 public schools regardless of vaccination status.

On Tuesday, the Oakland County Health Division issued an emergency health order with immediate effect that will impact about 210,000 students across 28 public school districts and 22 charter schools academies. The order also applies to daycare centers and vocational schools.

"Our top priority is keeping students in school for in-person learning," Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said. "Masking is one of the best defenses against increased transmission of COVID and higher hospitalization rates among kids. This order allows teachers to get back to educating our students and focusing on their success."

The mandate will remain in place until the county is at a moderate level of transmission for COVID-19, officials said. Oakland County is currently in substantial transmission mode, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sarah May-Seward and husband Nick  with daughter Gabbi on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. They had planned to keep Gabbi, who has disabilities and health challenges, home this school year because Huron Valley Schools did not have a mask mandate. A health order issued by the Oakland County Health Division mandates masks for all students in Oakland County schools, and Gabbi now plans to take in-person classes for her senior year.

COVID-19 transmission is high enough in all but two of Michigan's 83 counties that an overwhelming majority of Michigan residents should be wearing masks while in public under federal guidelines, according to the latest data from the CDC.  

Of the 2,740 new cases of COVID-19 in Oakland County from Aug. 4-17, more than one in six were school-age children, county officials said.

More than 52,000 Oakland County residents ages 12-19 years old remain unvaccinated as the 2021-22 school year gets underway, officials said in a news release. Students younger than 12 years are ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Of the 28 local districts in Oakland County, nine already had mask mandates in place, nine had announced mask optional policies and 10 districts were undetermined prior to the county's announcement.

Oakland's emergency order does not apply to those eating or drinking, children younger than the age of four, vaccinated teachers working with children who are hard of hearing or students with developmental conditions who benefit from facial expressions, people who have a medical reason in writing from a physician and anyone living with developmental conditions where wearing a mask would limit their access to education.

Decisions on whether Michigan's 1.4 million students in K-12 schools will be required to wear a mask in classrooms and on school campuses this new school year are being made at the local level by superintendents and elected school boards or by local health departments.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, which had recommended masks but did not require them, said he welcomes the decision by county health officials.

"It’s a very positive thing that Oakland County health stepped up and issued this," Matthews said. "They were putting superintendents in a position to justify why they were or were not issuing a mandate in their district, and superintendents should not be put in that decision — it's a health department issue."

Matthews said while his community was divided on the issue with some families wanting a mandate and others wanting the freedom to choose, "Now it helps us move forward."

Gerald Hill, superintendent of West Bloomfield schools, said the county's decision provides the support local districts need to protect students and staff in schools.

"I think it's great news that the Oakland County Health Department is stepping up and doing their job. And I applaud them for that," he said.

Hill said his district had decided Monday night to approve a mask mandate for students and staff. The school board had unanimously approved the policy ahead of school starting Monday.

"I think we all have to take a step back and realize we are in a much better position this year than last year. We are offering full days, five days a week in person," Hill said. "Masking is a critical strategy to maintain that. Without masking, we would be closing schools on a regular basis. With masking, we can make it through this."

Sarah May-Seward said she was immediately relieved to hear that the county emergency order means her daughter's district, Huron Valley Schools, is now forced to institute a mask policy.

The order now means her 17-year-old daughter, Gabbi, who has disabilities and health challenges, can safely attend school. May-Seward had planned to keep Gabbi home this school year.

"I am extremely happy with this decision, and I'm thankful the Oakland County Health Division decided to put this in place," May-Seward said.

Gabbi said she is excited to attend in person for her senior year. "I'm very happy to go to school because I can see more of my friends. I have friends in every grade. And I can go to prom," she said.

Sarah May-Seward with daughter Gabbi on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 at their home in White Lake. They had planned to keep Gabbi, who has disabilities and health challenges, home this school year because Huron Valley Schools did not have a mask mandate. A health order issued by the Oakland County Health Division mandates masks for all students in Oakland County schools, and Gabbi now plans to take in-person classes for her senior year.

Christina Gadde was also elated to hear the news Tuesday that her children’s district — Rochester Community Schools — is now required to have students and staff be masked inside buildings.

Gadde was so upset at the district’s mask-optional policy that this week she enrolled her second-grader and fourth-grader into the district’s virtual learning program to keep them home and safe.

“We are excited our children will be able to go to school in person,” Gadde said on Tuesday. “Health and safety should always be the number one priority. It’s really fantastic leaders are stepping up and prioritizing kids’ well-being. The moral thing is being done here.”

Comments posted on the Oakland County Health Division Facebook page Tuesday evening were largely against the emergency order. One person wrote that asking kids to mask up in classrooms without air conditioning given the hot and humid weather in Michigan this week is cruel. Others said officials were taking away parents’ freedom to choose.

One Facebook user questioned why the mandate was announced at the end of the business day just days before most schools resume classes.

Another commentor wrote that the order was unfortunate but hoped it wouldn't lead to protests at schools.

More than half of the commenters on the Novi Community Schools' Facebook page expressed support for the county’s decision, although there were several people who expressed disapoinment.

Cindy Weintraub, a nurse from Bloomfield Hills whose two children attend Birmingham Public Schools, teared up learning about the mandate.

The district this month announced mask requirements for students, and Weintraub said she plans to have her son vaccinated soon after he turns 12 in September. 

A county-wide mandate, she said, is "a safety standard that takes care of everybody across the board," she said. Her children are preparing to return in person after having spent last year in virtual classes.

"We know that it is a mitigation strategy. We know it’s something that is safe and effective. It prevents the spread of illness, especially for those who are unable to be vaccinated," Weintraub said, adding her children have no problem masking up. "Our end goal is to keep them in school and safely."

After declaring the district mask optional in late July, Troy Public Schools officials instituted a mask mandate on Friday citing a significant rise in COVID-19 case counts and community spread.

On Friday, school officials said they had been continually reviewing the COVID-19 data in the area leading up to the Aug. 31 start of school.

"Unfortunately, the trend in our area is not what we had hoped for, with both case counts and community spread rising significantly since we announced back-to-school plans a month ago," Troy Superintendent Rich Machesky said in an email to families.

"It is very important that we not just begin the school year with in-person learning but that we are able to keep students in our classrooms without interruption."

Other counties have issued mandates

Other Michigan counties have issued mask mandates including Genesee, Kalamazoo, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. Some have rules that only apply to certain age groups such as Genesee County, which requires masks for students in grades K-6.

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

Nearly 35% of Michigan students are in districts that have already implemented mask requirements, she said at the time, adding she was hopeful other schools would adopt similar guidelines. 

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

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.

At a press briefing Tuesday, White House COVID-⁠19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients criticized governors from both parties, those who are prohibiting K-12 schools from mandating masks as well as those who have not ordered a statewide mandate, according to a transcript released by the White House.

“You know, the president's message to those educators who are stepping up right now to protect their students when their governor will not is clear, and that is that we stand with you and are ready to support you in any way,” he said, adding that masks have proven effective at reducing transmission of COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, some school districts are being forced with difficult choices: defy their governors or hurt their students. No school should have to make that choice. Governors and other leaders must put politics and their own political self-interests aside."

The Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that everyone older than the age of 2 wear masks in schools this fall regardless of their vaccination status.

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 its 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.

Michigan Republicans have pushed against mask requirements at schools this fall despite recommendations from public health experts that the policies will help combat the spread of COVID-19.


Staff Writers Mark Hicks and Beth LeBlanc contributed.