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With 120 kids quarantined, Hartland elementary school mandates masks - for now

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Muneer Ahmed via Unsplash
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Round Elementary School in Hartland has only been in session for a week now, but already 122 students are in quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure, and at least six have been reported to the district as probable or confirmed cases. 

That’s prompting Hartland Consolidated Schools Superintendent Chuck Hughes to issue a temporary mask mandate for the single elementary school - but only for the next two weeks. 

“Due to the number of quarantined teachers and students, I have mandated all students and staff wear a cloth mask over their nose and mouth while indoors at Round Elementary starting tomorrow, August 26, 2021 through Labor Day,” Hughes said in a letter sent out Wednesday. “We will reassess as we get closer to Labor Day. We have several students who have tested positive due to outside exposure, but enough that we feel it necessary to take this precaution instead of shutting down the building.” 

The district is part of the first wave of Michigan schools to return for the 2021-2022 academic year, and serves as an early test case for the many school systems that have similarly chosen not to issue mask mandates. That’s despite strong recommendations from the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the recent release of new state health department models predicting as many as 400 children could be hospitalized between now and November if current trends continue. 

 

Other schools in the Hartland district are seeing smaller, but significant, numbers of students sidelined by quarantine, too. An additional 131 elementary and middle school students and 87 high schoolers have been sent home, according to the district. Nineteen of those students are considered probable or confirmed cases, plus the six at Round Elementary. 

“Any time we begin to see a pattern of cases in a school, I will make the decision to shut down a building or create a mandatory mask policy,” Hughes said. “In all transparency, I will make the decision to try a mandatory mask policy before making the decision to close a building. I am watching the case patterns closely and will make decisions as necessary.” 

Hughes did not return requests for comment Thursday. Round Elementary Principal Dorothy Hottum deferred to Hughes for comment. 

The firestorm over school mask mandates has led to anti-mask protests and raucous public comment periods at numerous school board meetings, as Governor Gretchen Whitmer maintains the state will not issue a broad mandate to schools. (That’s despite the advice of one of her top health advisors, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive.)

That’s left the question up to individual districts and county health officials. Health departments in places like Kent, Ottawa, Oakland, Kalamazoo and Allegan counties have all instituted school mask mandates. But Livingston County’s health department, which includes Hartland Consolidated Schools in its jurisdiction, has not. 

“Right now we are not mandating them, but we have given [schools] evidence to support mask wearing in congregate settings,” said Emma Harman, epidemiologist for Livingston County. 

Harman said contact tracers have been able to gather information on all cases involving Hartland students, and so far, they believe the spread is happening outside of schools at social activities, like birthday parties. 

“But at this point, we do have known exposure sources outside of the schools for all of our cases,” she said. “So we can confidently say at this point in time, we do not have any individual transmission at Heartland, which is a very positive thing for our school communities.”

Still, the county is seeing a rise in COVID cases among children. 

“But across the board, we're still seeing in Livingston County, a low number of kids with severe disease, if any. Lots of kids with mild to moderate COVID-19 at this point, which is very positive....Though at this point, like I said, we're very lucky to just have younger children with mild to moderate disease.” 

Asked whether a county-wide school mask mandate would mitigate those risks as more districts return in the coming weeks, Harman said they are doing their best to educate the community about the importance of vaccinations and mask-wearing.  

“And we are also hoping for guidance from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. We definitely like to make sure that we're always following their guidance to keep our residents are safe as possible.”

Does that mean Harman would like the state health department to step in and issue a new mandate, thus taking the heat off local officials? 

“I think that's definitely a question that is kind of going around a lot of the local health departments at this point,” she said. “But unfortunately, I kind of think answering that question is a little bit above my pay grade, as you will. So I definitely don't think that I can speak to that at this point because I'm not one of our leadership members here. But I think it's a really excellent question. And I'm glad that you're able to ask those pressing questions.”

A request for comment from Livingston County health officer Dianne McCormick was not returned Thursday.

 

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