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Mask-optional school districts respond to Wayne County's new mandate: now we have "clarity"

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When the Wayne County Health Department became the latest to order universal masking in schools on Friday, Grosse Pointe Public School System Superintendent Jon Dean was in his office fielding calls from reporters. He knew why they were calling.

“Is it about masks?” he deadpanned.

Like so many communities, Grosse Pointe’s school board meetings have been ground zero for the emotional, sometimes downright hostile mask debate. Until now, the district had adopted a “mask optional” policy, while saying it would “adjust” if COVID-19 cases increased.

But Wayne County’s order means not only that the state’s most populous county, serving some 290,000 students, will require masks in schools “until community transmission for Wayne County is categorized as ‘moderate’ by the CDC for at least 14 consecutive days, or until further notice by the Wayne County Local Health Department,” according to the order.

More broadly, it also means some 53% of Michigan’s traditional public school students attend districts where mask orders apply, according to a statement from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office Friday.

“As of today, 179 districts totaling over 53% of Michigan students, are covered by mask requirements implemented by their school district or local county health department,” Whitmer said in a press release. “That number has increased substantially over the last few weeks, and we expect to see that trend continue as the first day of school approaches.”

Whitmer has been criticized for letting local health officials bear the burden of deciding whether to issue and enforce school mask mandates, rather than issue a statewide order. That’s despite the advice of the state’s top doctor, and new Michigan Department of Health and Human Services models projecting as many as 400 children could be hospitalized for COVID between now and November if current trends continue.

For Dean, the county’s decision to step in offered some welcome “clarity.”

“It means that moving forward, all of our kids and our adults inside of our schools, just like all Wayne County institutions, are going to be masked moving forward,” he said Friday.

“One of the things that I've said consistently and publicly is, my training is as an educator. I'm a teacher. I'm trained to be a principal. I can make the decisions as a superintendent. I am not a medical expert," Dean said. "The Wayne County Health Department and other health departments, that's their area of expertise. I have no problem when they know what's best, and they put in a mandate in place, following that and moving forward. Because I'd rather focus on teaching and learning.”

Some of Wayne County’s biggest districts, like Detroit and Plymouth-Canton, had already opted to require masks indoors. Others, like Livonia Public Schools, were only requiring them for pre-K through 6th grade students. By Friday afternoon, LPS had issued new guidance to families, informing them that the district’s new mask mandate “will take effect immediately for ‘ALL students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, in educational settings.’ This applies to all indoor school and school-sponsored activities.”

It’s unlikely, though, that local mask mandates will mean the end of the issue. But Dean says they’re prepared for that.

“If you walked up to school, or your child walked up to school, and they didn’t have a mask, either because you forgot maybe, you didn't want one, or whatever, then we're going to provide you a mask,” he said. “And our expectation is, you’re going to wear it.

“Our kids here in this district, and in most districts, they want to come to school. I have a kid in this district, and he doesn’t want to wear a mask. None of us want to wear a mask. But he wants to come to school. So if wearing a mask is what the health department says he needs to do to come to school, that’s what our kids are going to be ready to do and our teachers are going to be ready to do.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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