Michigan Executive Medical Director Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Wednesday that she told Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that a statewide school mask mandate would reduce the spread of COVID among children.
The recognition is the first public indication of debate within the Whitmer administration over whether the state should renew a school mask mandate similar to what state officials ordered during the 2020-21 school year.
Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the department Khaldun works for, have stopped short of requiring masks when classrooms reopen, but instead issued a guide that “strongly recommends” masks.
The result is a patchwork of policies that vary across the state’s roughly 900 traditional public school districts and charter schools, with spirits raging among school leaders frustrated that the state appears to be passing the buck to them.
Wednesday’s press conference added to that frustration, according to school leaders who spoke with Bridge Michigan, as the state government’s top doctor said a mask mandate would reduce infections in schools, but the governor continued to refuse to require that schools students will be covered.
“I recommended that if a mask mandate existed and was followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” Khaldun said during a virtual press conference that included data showing projections of increases in infections among students. .
When asked why the governor did not issue a school mask mandate, Khaldun said there are many issues that go into a decision on school masking policies and that she would “give in to the principal,” referring to MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel.
Whitmer spokesman Robert Leddy issued a statement to Bridge in which he continued to place responsibility for the masks on county health departments, superintendents and school boards.
“While the vast majority of middle and high school students are eligible for safe and effective vaccines, we know that face shields can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect younger students who don’t yet have access to the vaccine”. Leddy wrote. “As Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said, these smart public health protocols are only effective if everyone works together to protect each other. That’s why school districts and local health departments must work together to implement universal mask policies to keep students safe and ensure that in-person learning can continue this year. “
According to Leddy, nearly 60 school districts have issued face mask mandates. Those districts enroll about 250,000 of the state’s more than 1.4 million students (about 18%). Among those who have announced mask mandates: Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Ann Arbor districts.
Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are increasing in Michigan, and state officials project an increase in hospitalizations and deaths over the next four to six weeks.
A model created by Michigan Medical University and distributed by the state on Wednesday projected between 3,937 and 6,177 COVID-related deaths in the four months from August to November; That compares with 4,391 virus-related deaths in the four months from March to June, a period that included the highest number of cases in the state.
UM epidemiologist Josh Petrie told Bridge last week that the projections are worst-case scenarios because vaccines are stabilizing. Statewide, Michigan’s vaccination rate among those 16 and older is 61%, while 29% of those ages 12-15 are vaccinated.
Vaccines are not available for children under 12 years of age.
The proportion of total new COVID cases among Michiganians age 19 and younger is growing, and the UM model projects 204 to 428 child hospitalizations between August and November.
You can view the full data package published by MDHHS here.
While hospitalizations among young people are low, the number of children hospitalized nationwide for complications from COVID is higher than ever, roughly one new admission for every 400,000 people ages 0-17. About half of those children have reported no underlying conditions, according to data published by MDHHS.
Michigan has not currently seen a similar increase in hospitalizations for children, but state health officials said they are concerned that an increase is likely as the contagious delta variant spreads.
A chart released by the state Wednesday illustrates the impact masks can have in a classroom. The time it takes for there to be a greater than 50% probability that an infected child will transmit COVID to another child is only three hours if the class does not wear masks, but 120 hours if everyone wears face shields in a way. adequate. .
Face masks have become a political litmus test, with some GOP-led states banning school mask mandates, including Florida, Texas, and Tennessee, and 10 states making masks mandatory in schools, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, and Oregon.
Health departments in at least three Michigan counties – Genesee, Kalamazoo and Allegan – have issued mask mandates for their county schools.
“I am concerned about what is potentially happening to our schools,” Khaldun said Wednesday.
She acknowledged that the state has the legal capacity to issue a mask mandate, but that “at this time, the governor and principal (MDHHS) (Hertel) have not made that determination.”
The lack of a state order on masks frustrates school leaders, who face pressure from parents on both sides of the problem. Some school board meetings across the state have turned contentious as parents and community members voice their opinions on the masks.
“They (state officials) are washing their hands of responsibility, and it’s unacceptable,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a school advocacy organization. “If the top doctor in the state is recommending something to the administration, we hope they will take it very seriously.
“We have held from day one that decisions regarding the health and safety of students should be made by health experts,” not by school boards and superintendents, McCann said.
State guidelines that “strongly recommend” masks, but do not mandate them, leave it up to local officials to make decisions.
“It’s going to be very piecemeal,” McCann said.
For example, in Ingham County in central Michigan, about half of the school districts have issued mask mandates for at least some grade levels, and the remaining districts recommend masks, said Jason Mellema, superintendent of the Intermediate School District. of Ingham.
Mellema said her county school leaders would prefer a clear yes or no on state masks.
“It’s challenging as schools are trying to figure this out when we don’t have clear parameters at the state level,” Mellema said.
Hertel, the state health director, was not available for comment Wednesday.
A statement issued by department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin reiterated that the state strongly recommends that students wear face masks and that we “applaud” the districts that have required masks ”and“ encourage all districts in Michigan to follow suit.
“We continue to work closely with school administrators and local health departments to advise on masking and prevention strategies and will continue to closely monitor the school population,” Sutfin said.
Nicole Kessler, mother of an elementary school student at Birmingham Public Schools in Oakland County, said she is tired of the finger pointing.
“If our children go back to school without the required masks and children get very sick or die or schools need to go back to online learning, this will be a major policy failure,” said Kessler, founder of a parent group at favor of the masks called Oakland County. Parents for a safe school in person.
“Parents are fed up with the state, county and districts passing the buck. Someone has to step up to protect our children. “
This story was originally published by Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom that covers the state.