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State, local health departments urge schools to require masks, but few make it mandatory

teacher kneeling at desk, showing students papers
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The state and some local health departments are using the strongest possible language to urge schools to adopt universal masking policies this fall. But for now, most have stopped short of making it mandatory.

Virtually every major public health agency and organization nationwide is urging schools to make masks mandatory this fall, regardless of a person’s vaccination status. This comes as the Delta variant ravages parts of the country, and has become the dominant strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 in Michigan as cases climb here.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services echoed that call in updated guidelines. It’s also urging schools to promote COVID-19 vaccination for all eligible people, use screening testing to detect infections, and use other measures such as physical distancing and improved ventilation to prevent transmission.

Some local health departments are also getting involved. In Kent County, the health department made what it calls “the highest recommendation possible” for schools to follow state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, including universal masking. But it did not issue a mandate to that effect.

“I am not issuing a public health order mandating masks in the schools at this time,” director Adam London said in a statement. “This decision is due to the reality that not all options have been exhausted to prevent the danger before us. The schools and the parents have even greater power than the health department to protect the children and the community in this instance. They are also better positioned to enforce such action.”

“To be clear, the Kent County Health Department has reviewed the science and we agree with conclusions of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, our local hospitals, our medical advisory workgroup, and the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed literature: the use of facial coverings in the school environment has been effective at significantly limiting COVID transmission."

The Genesee County Health Department did take that step. It’s making masks mandatory for students and staff in kindergarten through sixth grade, until eight weeks after a COVID vaccine is available for kids under 12.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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