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Wayne County drops mandate, local schools left to decide whether masks required

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Wayne County's health officer lifted the county's emergency mask order for K-12 schools on Thursday, sooner than had been expected after the department said last week it expected to lift the order at the end of the month.

Chief Medical and Health Officer Dr. Avani Sheth rescinded the August order effective at 8 a.m. Sheth said masking remains important to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and that children should still be supported to wear a mask for "individual reasons," including vaccination status and household risk factors.

The decision came one day after state health officials dropped public health advisories regarding mask usage in most indoor public settings and K-12 schools.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District will continue to require masks for students and staff, Nikolai Vitti, superintendent, confirmed on Thursday.

“We look forward to the day staff and students do not need to wear a mask in DPSCD,” Vitti said. “We agree with the Detroit Health Department that this day will occur a little later than other school districts due to the city’s lower vaccination rates and higher transmission rates."

About 45% of Detroit residents age five or older have had at least one dose of vaccine, compared with a state average of 64.3%, according to Detroit's COVID dashboard.

Vitti said the district, the largest in Wayne County, and the state, is close to having nearly 100% of its students consent to COVID testing. When that occurs and non-consenting students are transferred to virtual learning, Vitti said, the district will be in a position to allow for optional mask wearing for employees and students, unless they are riding a school bus.

"We anticipate this will occur by early to mid-March," Vitti said.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System sent an email to families on Monday saying it would shift from requiring masks to recommending them for all students, staff and visitors in school buildings one day after Wayne County lifted its order.

Rebecca Fannon, district spokeswoman, confirmed on Thursday the district will only recommend masks now.

Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education Trustee Lisa Papas talks about the Wayne County Health Department’s mask mandate on Nov. 8, 2021. On Thursday, Wayne County said it was ending its mandate immediately and the district said it would not institute a new local mandate.

"This change will allow families and staff to make choices regarding masking based on their individual circumstances," the district said in its email to parents. "This decision is based on our practice of following the guidelines and requirements set forth by the state and local health departments and our own sharp decline in new daily cases over the past few weeks."

The Pontiac School District announced on Tuesday that it will continue to require masks despite the county order ending.

“Keeping our students, staff, and community safe remains our top priority,” Superintendent Kelley Williams said. “Although we have seen a decline in COVID-19 cases in our area, the pandemic is still very present here. Additionally, with the upcoming mid-winter break many students and staff will be traveling, which can lead to a significant increase in exposure to the virus.”

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. 

The Benzie Leelanau District Health Department and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan also announced their intended rescission of K-12 mask mandates Friday.

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan — which covers Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties — said Friday it would lift its mask mandate on Thursday. 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. 

jchambers@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.