Oakland County mandates masks in all K-12 schools in emergency order

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Detroit Free Press
Aug. 24, 2021
Lily Altavena

Students and staff in schools across all of Oakland County will be required to wear masks as the school year begins.

Oakland County’s Health Division issued an indoor mask mandate on Tuesday, citing increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations among children nationwide. Oakland County is the second biggest county by population in Michigan, with 200,000 students who will be impacted by the order.

Districts include Rochester Community Schools, Troy School District and Novi Community School District.

“Our top priority is keeping students in school for in-person learning,” said Dave Coulter, Oakland County executive. “Masking is one of the best defenses against increased transmission of COVID and higher hospitalization rates among kids.”

The order follows other counties in Michigan, including Genesee and Kent counties. . While other states have broadly mandated masks, Michigan state leaders, led by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left mandates up to individual counties.

With Oakland’s order, 152 Michigan districts are now under a mask policy, representing 624,000 kids or about 43.4% of all students in the state, according to Whitmer’s office.

The uncertainty on the state level has left some school administrators in difficult positions, pulled in two different directions by community members vehemently opposed to and ardently supportive of masks.

Debates over masks reached peak levels in recent weeks, with school board meetings growing chaotic, punctuated by yelling. In Birmingham, one man was thrown out of a meeting for giving a Nazi salute.

And time is running out for many Michigan schools, which typically begin in the weeks before or after Labor Day. Many districts will start school next week, on Aug. 30.

The order also cites studies involving masks and schools, which found that proper masking cuts down on COVID-19 transmission in schools, particularly when vaccines aren’t available to every age group. The COVID-19 vaccine is available for children ages 12 and up, but still not authorized for children younger than 12.

State Rep. Kelly Breen, D-Novi, said she was relieved upon hearing news of the order, as a parent of two young children.

“We see that school districts are shutting down and the last thing we want is for our kids to have to return to virtual learning,” she said. “Some schools are not even set up for that right now. … This is quite simply the right thing to do.”

While some Oakland County school districts had mandated masks on their own, others, such as Clarkston, made masks an optional accessory for back-to-school.

The news for parents in Oakland County was cheered by some and vilified by others. Families flooded the comment section on the county’s Facebook post announcing the mandate, leaving “thank you” and “I hate you” notes.

“I know it’s not a popular decision but thank you on behalf of all of the parents whose children cannot be vaccinated,” wrote one commenter.

Jason Wantuck, a parent in the Avondale School District, said his two children started school this week. He supports the mandate, he said.

“Whatever we have to do to get that to happen so that we don’t have further shutdowns, we don’t have further quarantines, we don’t have anything that really interrupts the educational process as much as possible,” he said.

Christopher Peace, a parent with two sons in Lake Orion’s school district, said his 5-year-old son is entering kindergarten and has serious health issues. Peace desperately wants his son to experience in-person learning, but the lack of a mask mandate worried him, especially when vaccines aren’t available for young children.

“I’ve been fighting for it for quite awhile,” he said. “For many years, we’ve sort of been treated as second class citizens. … When your choice of trying to avoid a mere inconvenience can hurt my child, it becomes a major issue for me.”

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