Michigan health department: Mask wearing can limit student quarantines

Lansing — Michigan students who've been exposed to COVID-19 but don't have symptoms can avoid quarantining at home if they were wearing masks and they undergo daily testing, according to new guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The department issued the guidance for asymptomatic students Wednesday after schools across the state reopened for in-person classes amid concerns about a fourth surge of the virus. The recommendations, which were not imposed as requirements through an epidemic order, emphasize state officials' views that universal mask-wearing in schools is key to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Sarah Eisenberg stands outside of Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms on Aug. 9, 2021, with her sign before the school board's meeting about the plans for students to return for face-to-face classes this fall. Eisenberg supported mask-wearing.

The guidance received mixed reviews from two large Metro Detroit districts. The Detroit Public Schools Community District said it welcomed the guidance but noted it poses challenges, while Novi Community Schools indicated it would ignore the recommendation because it was too complicated.

The quarantine recommendation came a day after state health officials reported on Tuesday 31 new COVID-19 school outbreaks, a more than three-fold increase from last week's numbers.

If students exposed to the virus in school settings are wearing masks and undergo regular testing, they can avoid having to miss out on in-person instruction even if they were next to someone who tested positive, according to the state's advice.

So far, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has not required all students to wear masks in schools but has instead left the decisions up to local districts and county health departments. Whitmer stressed Wednesday at an appearance in Macomb County the importance of wearing a mask but defended her decision against issuing a statewide mandate.

About 40% of Michigan's public school districts were under a mandatory mask policy for students, according to a presentation last week from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

"When layered prevention strategies such as masking, distancing, testing, isolation and quarantine are applied consistently, school-associated transmission of COVID-19 is significantly reduced, which keeps kids in the classroom so they can learn,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services. "However, if someone is exposed to COVID at schools, it’s important for them to follow quarantine guidance to prevent spread to other children."

The state health department's recommendations for quarantine depend on vaccination status, mask use, COVID testing and the spacing of students. 

Under the new guidance, students who are exposed to COVID-19 can remain in school if they are fully vaccinated and if they wear a mask and monitor for symptoms for 14 days after their exposure. Vaccinated students should test for COVID-19 three to five days after their last exposure to the COVID-positive student, the guidance said.

In a situation where an unvaccinated student is wearing a mask and is exposed to a COVID-positive student who is also masked in an indoor setting but they stay at least 3 feet apart, the exposed student can remain in school if the student continues to wear a mask and doesn't have symptoms. The exposed student should monitor for symptoms for 14 days following the exposure, the guidance said.

If an unvaccinated student who is masked and is exposed to a mask-wearing COVID-positive student who is less than 3 feet away in an indoor setting, the exposed student should test daily.

"The exposed student can remain in school if they wear a mask," the state health department said. "They should monitor symptoms for 14 days and test daily before coming into the school building for the seven days following the exposure. They should continue to monitor for symptoms for a total of 14 days following the exposure."

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued this guidance for students and schools on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.

The state health department is providing schools antigen testing supplies free of charge, according to a Wednesday statement. At-home rapid COVID-19 antigen tests are also available over-the-counter in grocery stores and pharmacies, the department noted.

If an unvaccinated student is exposed to someone who is COVID-positive in school and they are both not wearing masks, the exposed student should not remain in school and should quarantine at home for at least seven days if he or she does not have any symptoms. The student may return after the seventh day if the student tests negative that day and does not have any symptoms, the health department guidance said.

Without a negative test, the student should quarantine at home for 10 days.

Exposed students should also quarantine at home if they were wearing masks, were less than 3 feet apart from someone with the virus and don't test daily.

Any individual who displays COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, should isolate and be tested for COVID-19. Individuals can return from isolation as directed by their local health department, the state department said.

How schools are responding

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, said the state's information is "unnecessarily complicated" and he is sticking with the district's current approach, which is to only quarantine sick students and staff. 

The district is in Oakland County, which has a countywide mask mandate for K-12 schools.

"Last year, we did quarantine students in close contact with students who were positive," Matthew said. "Of all those, none of them developed COVID. And so our experience is the quarantine of those healthy students was not beneficial to those students. They missed 10 days of school."

The district will monitor students who may have been exposed but are not showing symptoms, he said. 

Matthews said he wants to know who is responsible for testing — the district or parents — and who is responsible for reporting results.

"It feels like a push to force districts to mask. With masks, you have options to keep kids in school. It’s a push without saying they want a mandate," Matthews said.

In Detroit public schools, which has its own mask requirement and falls under Wayne County's mask mandate, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the state guidance is appreciated and provides the potential to keep asymptomatic close contact students in school.

Still, Vitti said he will wait to see how Detroit's health department will follow the guidance.

"Until then, we will continue with our current practice with a 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated close contacts," Vitti said.

The district is testing students and staff weekly for COVID-19. Vitti suggested the guidance will be difficult to implement because not all districts are requiring masks and do not have systems and processes in place for testing and follow-up testing.

"Without social distancing guidelines, masking and testing, this guidance would be a logistical nightmare to manage. In DPSCD, we have these systems in place," Vitti said.

With dozens of local health districts working with schools across the state, schools are handling the quarantine policies differently, said Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director for external relations for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

Spadafore said he's heard feedback from some districts on problems getting COVID-19 tests for students.

And while separating students by 3 feet sounds simple, Spadafore said, "Real estate is finite."

On Wednesday, Whitmer visited Lincoln High School in Warren for a round table discussion with educators. Van Dyke Public Schools has its own mask mandate, but Macomb County has not issued a county-wide mask requirement.

“The best way to keep our kids in schools so we can address the incredible disruption that COVID created is by masking up,” Whitmer told reporters after the event. “We strongly encourage districts across the state to embrace mask mandates. Sixty percent of our students are in districts that have done just that. And the numbers are continuing to grow.”

Asked why she isn't mandating masks statewide, Whitmer said circumstances are different now than 18 months ago. She hopes more local districts and counties adopt mask rules.

“We didn’t know a mask was the most important tool that we could have to keep ourselves safe," Whitmer said. "We had no idea we would have effective safe vaccines that are plentiful and free of charge. … Every one of us has the tools we need to stay safe. That’s why we are encouraging these decisions be made at the local level.”

Mike DeVault, superintendent of the Macomb Intermediate School District, attended the event with Whitmer and said his ISD has a mask requirement. But 14 of the county's school districts are mask optional, while eight require masks, he said.

“We are working closely with the health department and county executive to watch those trends. If at some point they see the evidence… if we need to have a mandatory mask mandate, we will do that. We are not there yet,” DeVault said

The new state guidance is a small step in the right direction, he said.

“Our superintendents have asked for more flexibility,” DeVault said. “What we hope to see happen as we move through this school year is you keep more kids in school than you keep home.”

Thirty-one new COVID-19 school outbreaks were reported Tuesday by state health officials. The state reported 26 new outbreaks at K-12 schools, two at higher education institutions, one at an administrative building and two at intermediate school districts.

The largest K-12 outbreak is at Adams Elementary School in Midland where 23 cases including students and staff were reported. Two other Midland elementary schools also reported outbreaks of six and five cases, respectively.

The number of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 has been inching upward in Michigan since July as other states experience surges in infections that are testing their hospitals' capacity.

On Wednesday, Michigan reported 1,293 adults hospitalized with the virus. While the tally is well below the past spikes, it's the highest total reported since late May.

The state has reported 13,125 new cases over the last week, a 3% decrease from the total the previous seven days.