Michigan health chief: School mask mandate could help stop spread of COVID-19 this fall

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun says she has recommended statewide school mask mandate be implemented

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, of MDHHS, at a May 12, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

Michigan’s health chief said if the state did issue a school masks mandate, and it was followed, then the spread of COVID-19 could be mitigated this fall as students and teachers return to in-person classrooms.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, spoke during a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) COVID data news conference on Wednesday. She said MDHHS is aware it is legally allowed to implement a school mask mandate, “but the governor and the director have not made that determination.” Khaldun was asked whether she has specifically recommended a statewide school mask mandate to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health Director Elizabeth Hertel.

“I have recommended (to them) that if a mask mandate were in place and it were followed it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” said Khaldun.

As of Wednesday, Michigan health officials have not implemented any such mask mandate. Instead, they are “strongly recommending” schools require universal masking when students return for in-person learning. MDHHS updated its guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19 within school buildings last week, stating “because many students have yet to be vaccinated and students under age 12 are not yet eligible, layered prevention measures, including universal masking, must be put in place for consistent in-person learning to keep kids, staff and families safe.” This is in line with the CDC’s recommendation that all students and school staff wear face masks.

Districts across the state have announced mask mandates for inside school buildings. The Genesee County Health Department has issued a public health order requiring masks be worn by students from kindergarten through 6th grade. Health officials in Wayne County issued an advisory to do the same, but not a mandate.

MDHHS released the following statement Wednesday afternoon:

“The state is committed to ensuring that Michigan students and educators are safe in the classroom. We recently strengthened our school guidance to strongly recommend a universal mask mandate in schools along with other CDC-developed prevention strategies that schools and local health departments can use together to reduce the spread of COVID-19, maintain in-person learning and protect people who are not yet fully vaccinated. Some local health departments and school districts have already moved forward to require masks in schools; we applaud their efforts and encourage all Michigan districts to follow their lead. We continue to work closely with school administrators and local health departments to advise on masking and prevention strategies and will continue to monitor the school population closely. MDHHS encourages all eligible Michiganders to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are able. The vaccine is our best protection against the virus and how we can end this pandemic together.”

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Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.