Wayne County officials expected to issue COVID-19 guidance to schools on Friday

The Detroit News

Wayne County health officials are expected to issue COVID-19 guidance to schools on Friday. 

“The health and safety of the students in Wayne County is our top priority as we welcome them back to school this year," said Daveda Colbert, superintendent at the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agencies, or RESA, in a statement.

RESA, which provides services and support to more than 30 districts in the county, has been in ongoing conversations with the county health division throughout the pandemic about safety mitigation measures, she said. 

Grosse Pointe North High School volleyball coach Chelsea Brozo gets the Pfizer vaccine from Carrie Conn, a nurse with the Wayne County Health Departmen in February. Wayne County students and staff are preparing for the return to classes on Sept. 7.

Colbert said the health department was expected to offer additional direction on mitigation measures and safety procedures on Friday. 

"The work of our educators across the county in preparation for this school year has been extraordinary, especially given the ongoing challenges presented by the pandemic," she said. "I know they are all eager to welcome students back to school — in a safe and secure learning environment that protects the health and wellbeing of their students."

The county has not formally decided on a mask policy as of Thursday night.

Tiffani Jackson, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, said Wednesday that “we are in discussions with school districts and communities and heavily considering the implementation of a mask mandate for in-person learning.”

On Thursday night, she told The Detroit News in an email that county officials would "have something solidified tomorrow."

Others were weighing in, meanwhile, to urge the county to issue a mask order. Seven state Democratic senators sent a letter to the Wayne County Health Department, citing "serious and severe cases" of young children contracting the virus and "potential long-term side effects." They called for a county-wide mask requirement in schools, Sen. Dayna Polehanki, 7th District, said Thursday on Twitter.

"We write to you today to respectully request that the Wayne County Department of Health, Human and Veterans Sevices issue an emergency health order, with immediate effect, requiring masks to be worn by every student, teacher, and staff memmber in all Wayne County public shcools — regardless of vaccination status," the lettter said.

"... School districts, in large measure, wanted the ability to make COVID-related decisions at the local level, but becaue they are not public health experts, they need bold, science-based guidance from you and your team of medical experts."

A mask mandate for the state's largest county would be the latest as the delta variant of  COVID-19 surges through Michigan and has pushed most counties in the state into a high transmission rate for the variant.

It would also affect the most students, following Oakland County's decision this week for 210,000 students. According to RESA, there are 33 school districts in 43 Wayne County communities serving approximately 226,000 students. There also are 108 public school academies serving 64,000 students.

Other counties have issued mask mandates, including Oakland, Genesee, Kalamazoo, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa, although some, like Genesee, only require masks for students in grades K-6.

The list is likely to grow. COVID-19 transmission is high enough in Michigan's 83 counties, where 72 are listed as high for transmission of the delta variant and 11 others listed as substantial, that an overwhelming majority of state residents should be wearing masks while in public under federal guidelines, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

On Wednesday, Michigan added 4,326 new COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths from the virus. The figures brought overall totals to 937,720 cases and 20,161 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Last week, the state reported 10,807 new cases, up 14% from the 9,467 cases disclosed over the previous seven-day period.

Michigan's COVID-19 hospitalizations have surpassed 1,100 inpatients, and new infection numbers have been climbing for a month.

Through Wednesday, 65.3% of Michigan residents age 16 or older had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the state health department.

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

The move sparked a protest outside county health division offices in Pontiac on Wednesday. About 150 parents railed against the mandate decision that applies regardless of vaccination status. Some said they would send their children to school without masks, turn to home-schooling or try to overturn the emergency health order in the courts.

Hours later, parents and community members demonstrated outside the Macomb County Health Department in Mount Clemens to urge the county to institute a mask mandate this school year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has defended her decision not to issue a statewide mask mandate despite advice from the state's chief medical executive as well as urging from federal officials and the White House.

She told reporters Monday there are mitigating measures such as vaccines. "We now have tools so that we can take action to protect ourselves and those around us," she said.

Whitmer added that nearly 35% of Michigan students were in districts that have implemented mask requirements.