Michigan health officials: Schools should require masks for all students

Officials: Students returning to in-person instruction this fall should wear face masks to prevent spread of COVID-19

A student wearing a face mask takes a class during the first day of school reopening at a high school in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian) (Vincent Thian, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s top health official is calling on superintendents to require students to wear face masks this fall amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Many Michigan school districts have opted to begin the 2020-21 school year entirely online due to the virus, but a number are still planning to offer full-time, in-person learning in the fall.

Michigan’s top health official Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), said Friday that students returning to in-person learning in the fall should be wearing face masks.

In June, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released guidelines for schools to reopen this fall, which do require face masks to be worn by most students during most occasions.

Under Whitmer’s MI Safe School Roadmap, schools whose regions are in phase four of the pandemic must require students in grades 6-12 to wear face masks in classrooms. Students in grades K-5 are also required to wear face masks in classrooms unless they “remain with their classes throughout the school day and do not come into close contact with students in another class,” the guidelines read.

All students between pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade are required to wear masks in all common areas, hallways and during school transportation. Exceptions include during mealtimes, and for individuals who are medically unable to tolerate wearing a face covering.

Though masks aren’t required to be worn in some scenarios, officials are urging schools to require students to wear face coverings at all times to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Masks are proven to reduce a person’s chance of spreading COVID-19 by about 70 percent,” MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said. “There’s also growing evidence that masks can protect the wearer’s life, by reducing the severity of COVID if they get it.”

Face masks have been scientifically proven to significantly reduce a person’s chance of spreading COVID-19, particularly between people who are in close proximity to one another -- which will be the case for many students this fall.

While Whitmer’s MI Safe Schools Roadmap expresses the importance of physical distancing among students in classrooms, a number of districts have already said that a 6-foot distance between students cannot be guaranteed at all times. Limited physical distancing increases the need for face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Below is a chart provided by the MDHHS that illustrates how high or low the chance of transmitting COVID-19 is dependent upon face mask usage and physical distance.

A chart from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services regarding the risk of COVID-19 transmission in various scenarios when face coverings are and are not worn. The chart shows a high risk of COVID-19 transmission when no face coverings are worn, and the least risk of transmission when coverings are worn by both parties. (MDHHS)

Whitmer said Friday that she does not anticipate a new executive order requiring face masks to be worn in all scenarios for schools in the fall. Still, the governor is encouraging all age groups to wear masks as frequently as possible to reduce the chance of COVID-19 spread.

“The only way we can put an end to this pandemic is to take it seriously -- do our part to protect one another and do what works,” Whitmer said Friday. “My mask says ‘I wear this for you.’”

Michigan officials announced Friday a new initiative that will provide four million free face masks to vulnerable communities throughout the state -- including low-income schools.

The MI Safe Schools Roadmap does require all school staff members to wear face coverings at all times, except during mealtimes. Schools are also required to provide supplies to help students maintain good hygiene, such as soap and hand sanitizer, and ensure physical distancing wherever possible.

All Michigan school districts have been required to develop learning plans that follow state guidelines for various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each district’s board of education must approve the proposed plan by Aug. 14, officials said.

Whitmer said Friday that the state will begin scrutinizing districts’ plans next week to ensure they meet state requirements.

Since early July, face masks are required to be worn in all indoor public spaces and some outdoor spaces under an executive order.

Last week, Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order requiring children and workers to wear face masks at Michigan childcare centers and camps.

All staff members and children ages 2 and older will now have to wear face coverings on school buses and other transportation. Staff members and children ages 4 and older have to wear face coverings in all indoor common spaces.

“Masks continue to be one of the best ways to contain the spread of COVID-19, and they can be safely worn by most of us over the age of two,” Dr. Khaldun said. “Be a role model for your children and demonstrate the importance of wearing a mask. Have your child practice properly wearing a mask -- over their nose, mouth and chin -- while they are at home so they are comfortable with it in public. It will take all of us, of all ages, doing our part to continue slowing the spread of this disease and to protect our families and communities.”   

As of Wednesday, the state of Michigan is reporting 90,392 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 6,289 deaths.

Read: Despite spike, Michigan’s chief doctor ‘cautiously optimistic’ on COVID-19 trend

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.