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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

Ann Arbor's school mask mandate: Parents and a public health expert weigh in

Mitchell Elementary School is one of the Ann Arbor schools that closed in December because of "very high" staff illnesses.
Ann Arbor Public Schools
Mitchell Elementary School is one of the Ann Arbor schools that closed in December because of "very high" staff illnesses. The district has instituted a temporary mask mandate that began Monday after winter break.

The Ann Arbor Public School district is requiring masks for the first time this school year. The mandate began Monday as students returned from their winter break.

In a message to district families and staff, Superintendent Jeanice Swift said the goal is to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and keep kids in school. That’s after the district had to close some schools for a day or two in December because too many staff members were sick with flu, colds, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or COVID.

The mask mandate is in effect through January 20.

Welcome news for some parents

On Tuesday morning, Amanda Hess dropped two of her three children at Mitchell Elementary School. It’s one of the schools that closed before the winter break.

Hess says the closing in December was a big disruption. She hopes a mask mandate will prevent another lost day. Hess’s kids were masking already, so the mandate won’t change their daily routine. She expects more mask rules like this in the future.

"I think it'll come and go, depending on how bad the illnesses are, and you know how much there is of it," Hess said. "It's probably going to be a new normal in some ways. And we will hopefully get back to no masks eventually. But, we're just rolling with it."

Brian Burkett has a daughter at Mitchell. He wishes the district had issued a mask mandate sooner.

"Honestly, I was thinking it was a couple of weeks too late. It really should’ve been in place about a week before Thanksgiving or so since everything had been ramping up," Burkett said.

Opposition to the mandate

But the hundreds of comments on the district’s Facebook page show mask mandates are still polarizing. Jesse Kauffman has kids at Skyline High School and Forsythe Middle School and posted several comments against the mandate.

"The grown-ups in charge here need to step up and tell people, 'Look, people get sick. Remember that that’s a part of life,'" Kauffman told Michigan Radio. "We can’t keep trying to control this because there’s really not much, in fact I would say there’s nothing, you can do. There’s really no point to any of this."

An Ann Arbor Board of Education meeting on Wednesday included about two dozen comments submitted by parents. Nearly all of them were opposed to masking. Melissa Stucky addressed the board in-person. Her daughter attends Skyline.

"My child is not a guinea pig for your two-weeks' experiment."

In an interview with Michigan Radio, Stucky said her daughter’s initial reaction to the mask requirement was indifference, but that changed after her first day back at school.

"She said, 'It sucked. I have a headache.' And she said some of the kids weren't really wearing them up on their face, but they would go in class and they would be told to. She said some teachers were more lenient, some weren't. Then she said she had a headache and she didn't want to go back to school the next day."

Students and staff will have another full school week of masking before the mandate expires.

The science on masking

For more on the Ann Arbor Public Schools mask mandate and the state of COVID flu and RSV in Michigan, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou spoke with Emily Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Doug Tribou: What do you think of Ann Arbor's decision to have a temporary mask mandate as kids and staff return from winter break?

Emily Martin: The timing of this makes a lot of sense. We've known for a long time that masks prevent the spread of COVID, but it also prevents the spread of a lot of other viruses that we are having in the community right now. And return from break, and travel, and vacations, and all this mixing that people do during the break tends to bring a lot of virus activity into schools. We've seen this for year after year, even before the pandemic happened. Thinking ahead and having masks in place during that transition is a strategy to sort of help mediate those factors.

"We've known for decades that masks can cut down on viruses in the air. ... Now, does it completely stop all virus transmission? It doesn't. It's a reduction factor."
Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health

DT: How effective can a short-term mandate like this be? The mandate in the schools lasts until January 20. Is that enough time to make it worthwhile?

EM: Well, I think the hope is that if you use a mask mandate for a few weeks, it sort of rides out that initial bump of infections that comes back with people from vacation. We're already seeing RSV starting to go down in the community. And so keeping that at a lower level is great. And hopefully flu will start to go down soon. So, if we give ourselves a few weeks to see where that trajectory goes, I think that it can help even out the beginning of the semester for students, which is so important to get students re-introduced back into the classroom in a good and stable way.

DT: Could I ask you to say a little bit more about what we're seeing right now in terms of respiratory illnesses? We have COVID at play, as you mentioned, the flu, and RSV. Where do things stand in the broader sense in Michigan right now?

EM: We've just come out of a really large and early RSV wave that really hit the news and was pretty tough for the children's hospitals and for pediatric practices around the area. That seems to be back down to lower levels.

Flu is peaking right now, so it means that there is a lot of flu in the communities. There are some early signs that it might be starting to go back down, but too early to say. It's not unusual for flu to have multiple peaks during a season because of all the strains that we have. So, flu is really high, but hopefully it'll go back down, too.

COVID has not started this upward trajectory that other states have been reporting, so COVID is still on lower levels, but we're watching to see if it's going to tick back up with some of these new variants.

DT: Emily, the topic of masks remains incredibly divisive after AAPS announced the new short-term mask mandate Sunday. There was a lot of reaction, pro and con, but incredibly divisive, a lot of arguing back and forth in comment sections on Twitter and Facebook over the announcement.

You touched on the effectiveness of masks earlier, but I'd like to take a moment to ask you to share what the research shows about what masks can do to stop the spread of these respiratory illnesses.

EM: We've known for decades that masks can cut down on viruses in the air. This is why we've seen masks for so many years in medical systems, in hospitals and clinics. Even our own [research], we've seen that during times of the pandemic, when mask wearing was highest, we saw reductions in all of these other respiratory viruses of 50% or more.

We've also seen that when schools started reopening with mask mandates in place in the past, they had much lower rates of COVID transmission than when they didn't. So, the evidence is there that it cuts down the virus in the air when people are wearing masks.

Now, does it completely stop all virus transmission? It doesn't. It's a reduction factor. But the reality is that the more masks that we have in schools right now, during this time of transition, the less virus we're going to have in the air and the more likely we are to keep our doors of our schools open longer and teachers in the classroom and teachers healthy for the start of the school year.

Further reading: "As viral infections skyrocket, masks are still a tried-and-true way to help keep yourself and others safe" by Marisa Eisenberg and Emily Toth Martin for The Conversation

Editor's note: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full story and interview near the top of this page.

The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's broadcast license.

Lauren Talley is Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition producer. She produces and edits studio interviews and feature stories, and helps manage the “Mornings in Michigan” series. Lauren also serves as the lead substitute host for Morning Edition.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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