Wayne Co. becomes last Michigan county to drop student mask mandate

The Wayne County Health Department announced Friday it would lift its K-12 mask mandate by the end of the month, becoming the last health department in the state and the sixth in two days to bring an end to required student masking. 

The county's decision followed similar plans announced by Washtenaw and Oakland counties earlier in the day and Ingham County Thursday. The Benzie Leelanau District Health Department and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan also announced their intended rescission of K-12 mask mandates Friday.

With Wayne's announcement, all of the state's countywide K-12 school mask mandates will be dropped by the end of February, but school districts maintain the discretion of imposing their own masking requirements. 

Health departments in Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties said Friday they would lift all COVID-19 orders related to K-12 schools starting Feb. 28 because of decreased case rates and hospitalizations as well as increased vaccination rates.

“I completely understand and sympathize with everyone who is sick and tired of COVID and just wants to move on with their lives," Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said in a Friday evening statement. "The only note of caution I would issue is that we also thought that COVID was essentially done with us last summer, only to see it come raging back. That was the reason for our caution. Hopefully the past will not be a prologue this time."

Every health department that lifted its requirements this week noted that it still recommended mask-wearing in public indoor spaces, including schools, but said the time for a mandate had ended.

“We are in a different place now. We can offer more flexibility while we continue to provide appropriate guidance and work with our local schools to protect health, prevent spread, and maintain in-person learning as safely as possible,” said Jimena Loveluck, the Washtenaw County health officer. 

While all of Michigan's 45 health departments are calling it quits on required student masking, the mandates could remain in place for some schools should school boards vote to impose the requirement for their districts. 

Many counties that decided to end their mask mandates made them effective one to two weeks out from the announcement to allow school districts time to discern whether they would implement their own rules. 

The Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools asked for a better explanation of the data supporting the decisions to rescind mask mandates, especially as the state remains high on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's transmission monitor. The group asked school districts to make their own policies requiring masks, especially for those who have had recent contact with a COVID-positive individual. 

“This rapid, dramatic rush for ‘exit ramps’ from masking have not been adequately explained and seem to ignore the continued risk faced by so many,” said Jennifer Tuksal, a Rochester Hills member of the group.

Short of a mask mandate, some health department guidances could remain in place. 

Washtenaw County said it would provide updated guidance before the end of the month that will include requirements for students and staff to mask if they've had close contact with a COVID-positive individual. 

On Friday, Gabrielle Lawrence, president of the Lansing School District, said the district will be discussing the issue of masks at its next meeting on Thursday.

"The Lansing School District is considering all options for the health and safety of our students and staff,” Lawrence said in a statement.

West Bloomfield schools Superintendent Gerald Hill said his Oakland County district issued a mask mandate around the same time Oakland County officials issued their emergency order in August.

But the district will follow the county's guidance and end the required use of masks on Feb. 28 because the data in the district is consistent with county data, showing cases declining significantly.

"We are comfortable with dropping the mandate and will still strongly encourage masking indoors. It won't be required," Hill said.

"If there is a spike we could back to requiring masking. It could be on an individual school basis," he said.

Novi Community Schools Superintendent Steve Matthews said students and staff will still have the option to wears masks in school after the county mandate is lifted. Matthews said the change may cause concerns among his teaching staff, who are in close quarters with children all day long.

"They are in a classroom with between 20 and 25 students in a 900-square-foot space for seven hours a day," Matthews said. "I think having masks on students brought some comfort to them. There was at least that form of protection."

Shannon Bonsall, a parent of two school children in the Berkley School District who works from home, was surprised by the news and said she hopes the district will consider a local mandate.

"I figured it was coming but also thought they would wait until the weather improves a bit for better air circulation, more opportunity for outdoor learning," Bonsall said. "I won’t lie, this makes me super nervous. I do not need my kids home learning virtually."

Oakland County's decision to lift its school mask requirement came after parents from Walled Lake Consolidated Schools sent demand letters to county officials and school district leaders earlier this week seeking an end to mask mandates and the use of public funds to enforce them.

In its statement announcing the rescission of the mandate, Oakland County said its decision was driven by a "sharp decline" in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, accompanied by a high vaccination rate. 

“As we see our critical measures of vaccinations, hospital admissions, and cases moving in a direction that tell us the COVID-19 impact on our community is greatly improving, the time is right to remove the mask order for daycares and educational institutions,” said Health Division Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust. 

Nathan Pawl, spokesperson for Walled Lake Citizens for Parental Rights, applauded Oakland County's decision and called for the immediate end of the mandate.

"Scheduling the end of the mandate is not enough. It must end immediately, as it is illegal," Pawl said. "Any continued enforcement of the mandate is a violation of state law."

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan — which covers Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties — said Friday it would lift its mask mandate effective Feb. 17. The Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, which shares leadership with the Northwest Michigan department, will lift its mask mandate the same day. 

The Northern Michigan health departments cited similar improvements to Oakland County in case rates and hospitalizations as well as a shift away from mandates to "individual personal protection responsibilities."

The Oakland County Health Department said the two-week notice about ending the mandate will allow local school districts to prepare families and schools as well as allow school boards to put their own mandates in place if they would like to. 

The decision came as the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services keep in place recommendations that urge masking in public indoor spaces. 

Oakland County's cases of COVID-19 dropped 40% the week of Feb. 6 and hospital admissions for adults dropped 72% from the peak on Jan. 10, according to county data.

About 76% of Oakland County residents over the age of 5 are vaccinated with at least a first dose. For people over the age of 12, the percentage of vaccination climbs to 79%. 

“We are now at a place in the pandemic where an emergency health order should be replaced by individual action to protect ourselves, especially masking in public and getting vaccinated," said Leigh-Anne Stafford, director of health and human services for Oakland County. 

Washtenaw County cited similar improvements in case rates, hospitalizations and vaccinations in lifting its mask mandate, which has been in place since September. School-only orders have shown themselves to be "less effective" because of the overall exposure students might have to the omicron variant outside of the classroom, the department said. 

Nearly 72% of Washtenaw County residents over the age of 5 are fully vaccinated and more than 57% of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 have received at least a first dose of the vaccine.