Whitmer: Michigan officials watching schools' mask policies 'very closely'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Meridian Township — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says her administration is still leaving decisions on whether students and teachers should be required to wear masks up to individual school districts.

Just weeks ahead of the start of the year for many schools across the state and as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise, the Democratic governor said her team is watching districts' decisions "very closely" and is hopeful they adopt mask policies. Questioned repeatedly by reporters during a Thursday event, she didn't indicate a statewide policy was on the horizon and she didn't expressly rule it out.

Asked if she would intervene if many districts don't mandate masks in the coming weeks, Whitmer referenced Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive.

"I can tell you that Dr. J is very focused on encouraging districts to mask up for the health of their students. Students cannot get inoculated yet," Whitmer said. "I was on the call this morning with national experts we consult with every few months ... They, too, are suggesting that masks are absolutely critical in schools."

As it stands, children under the age of 12 cannot get vaccinated yet.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about storm damage in the state during an event in Meridian Township on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Whitmer took multiple questions about school mask requirements during an appearance in Meridian Township that focused on storm damage.

Michigan is experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as regions of the southern United States face surges in infections because of the more contagious delta variant. A presentation released Wednesday by the state Department of Health and Human Services said another spike in infections is "likely" in Michigan if vaccination efforts continue to slow and residents keep increasing their rate of social contact. The developments come as students across the state prepare to return to in-person learning for the new school year.

"Michigan was one of the last states to experience a rise in cases, but it is very likely there will be another surge in the state," said Chelsea Wuth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services. "We can mitigate the severity of a spread by getting one of the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing."

On Thursday morning, the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that everyone older than the age of 2 wear masks in schools this fall regardless of their vaccination status. However, the association, which features more than 1,500 pediatricians, did not expressly call on Whitmer's administration to use its powers to impose the policy.

At least 10 states have adopted recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requiring all students, teachers and visitors to wear masks in public schools, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In Michigan, Whitmer said school districts are deciding how to handle their mask policies for the new year. She and the GOP-controlled Legislature had previously vested power in local school boards to make the determinations, she said.

“At this point, we’re seeing a lot of districts moving forward and adopting mask policies," Whitmer said. "I think that’s the right thing to do. I’m glad to see so many, especially here locally in Ingham County, have taken it very seriously.

"I anticipate other schools will be following suit.”

On Tuesday, the Michigan Board of Education voted in favor of a resolution supporting independence for local school districts to make "scientifically informed decisions," including on "mandates for universal masking" at all school facilities and events for students, teachers and visitors.

The policy decisions are playing out as the virus appears to be gaining steam in Michigan, a state where the last surge peaked in April.

While deaths linked to the virus have remained low, case numbers and the percentage of tests bringing positive results have been trending upward for longer than a month now. On Wednesday, the number of adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 745 across the state, a 153% increase over the 294-person total 12 days earlier