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It's "dangerous" for schools not to require masks, medical experts say

David Emrich via Unsplash

Some of the state’s large school districts, including Utica Community Schools, Plymouth-Canton, Grosse Pointe and Grand Rapids, say they won’t require masks as students return this fall. But some of the doctors and medical experts who treat children in those communities say that’s a dangerous policy. 


“There’s no reason to take the risk of making this optional,” said Dr. Matthew Sims, the director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, at a press conference Tuesday. “The idea that we have this entire population of people [under age 12] who cannot be protected by the vaccine, and they're going to make masking optional in a place where they can't keep social distancing as well ... it’s just not safe."

Last week, Grosse Pointe Superintendent Jon Deanannounced the district would begin the year with a “mask optional” policy, citing what he said was an 80% community vaccination rate and “low local COVID numbers.” A reference guide for families said the district “may need to reinstate mandatory masking in school buildings” if cases increase. 

But Sims said that’s not how the virus works. 

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well our rates of vaccination in this school district or that school district are better than the national average,’ and whatnot,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, it just takes one or two cases to start ripping through schools. ...And those kids can then take it home, spread it to their parents, spread it to their family, the grandparents who are older and maybe more vulnerable.” 


Meanwhile, the Michigan state board of education heard hours of impassioned public comment about mandatory masking policies and other COVID-related measures during a meeting on Tuesday. The board was considering three resolutions involving COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools.

Dozens of parents called in to express fierce opposition to school districts’ requiring universal masking, regardless of vaccination status, while a handful expressed support. That’s despite the fact that any board resolution is non-binding and merely advisory.

The board eventually approved a resolution recognizing local school districts’ power to set their own masking policies, over the objections of Republican board members Nikki Snyder and Tom McMillin, who pushed for a resolution that would have condemned districts for universal masking requirements.

Two other proposed resolutions failed. One of them would have opposed “discriminating against students based on vaccine status.” The other would have supported banning mandatory COVID testing in schools.

Snyder, who also voiced strong skepticism about COVID vaccines more broadly, said it's "unconstitutional" for schools to require that only unvaccinated students quarantine after a COVID exposure. “This is the crux of the discrimination that we’re seeing with vaccination,” she said.  “This is the quid pro quo that’s baked into vaccination right now.”

Board President Casandra Ulbrich disagreed. “I think what we’re seeing right now, especially with the Delta variant, is there is a huge difference in what happens to those who are vaccinated versus unvaccinated,” Ulbrich said. “And I don’t think that we should be telling schools that you can’t take precautions when you know someone is unvaccinated, knowing that the risk can be substantially higher for them.”

Vaccination rates are lower among Michiganders ages 12-15 than any other age group, with just 33% covered by the vaccine. So what parents and schools decide now, in late summer, will have an enormous impact on whether adult and pediatric cases continue to rise in Michigan, said Dr. Sandy Patel, a pediatric hospitalist at Beaumont, Royal Oak.

“Thankfully, right now in Michigan, we have not been seeing as high of a number of pediatric cases admitted as they have in other states currently,” Patel said. “We’re at the place where we truly can, hopefully, make a change, and make it where a few months down the road, we're still in a good place,”



Currently, 11 children are hospitalized for suspected or confirmed COVID, according to state data. And while recent studies suggest the risk of death from COVID for kids is very low, Patel says she’s seeing more patients with long-term complications from the virus, otherwise known as “long COVID.” One landmark study suggested as many as half of all children who contract COVID, even those who are asymptomatic, experience "lasting symptoms."

“It’s just something that's not talked about,” Patel said. “It's sort of like, ‘Oh, it's a cold, he had it for two weeks and he's fine, or a few days. But there definitely are some long-term complications that we're seeing. Especially in our patients who have who are obese, have diabetes, they’re at higher risk for getting complications.”

And kids who do have COVID are coming to the hospital with an increasingly wide range of symptoms that “masquerade” as other illnesses, she said. 

“We can have hives...an exacerbation of asthma, [gastrointental] symptoms, dehydration, chest pain. So we really can see anything. And then you also have to be aware of psychological disturbances in the pediatric patients. So it’s sort of on our radar for every patient that we see.” 

And while MIS-C, a rare inflammatory syndrome that can develop weeks after a child contracts COVID, has only resulted in about 4,400 reported cases nationally, those cases can be severe and even deadly. About 70% of kids with MIS-C have to be treated in the intensive care units, Patel said. 

“They may not even know that they had COVID a few weeks ago,” she said. “They may have just thought, ‘We had a little cold, we feel OK, we were just a little run down.’ ...And then they present with a rash ... like a sandpapery rash.... Their eyes are very red. And those kids go down fast. And that’s our greatest fear, is [that] those kids will go down fast without prompt diagnosis and treatment.” 

Families who still have questions about getting their child vaccinated for COVID should talk to their pediatrician, she said. 

“I have three children in the public school system, and I do attend the board meetings, and I do hear a lot of dialogue and discussion. I think the best thing [for vaccine-hesitant families] has just been continued gentle reminders, continued conversations with your pediatrician...I think it’s that relationship that’s key for these families to say, ‘OK, I’m going to get the vaccine.’”


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.
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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