Eight counties across Michigan are poised to rescind school mask mandates next week, removing one of the last and most divisive measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Ingham, Washtenaw and six northern Michigan counties are expected to end mandates that have covered dozens of districts and tens of thousands of students.
Ingham County will end its mandate on Feb. 18, said Linda Vail, the county’s public health officer. Her department will still recommend masking in schools but will no longer require it.
“Public health strategies are shifting to personal responsibility,” Vail told Bridge Michigan on Thursday.
She said falling cases and rising vaccinations, combined with a need to move away from an “emergency” phase prompted the decision.
Other counties could follow suit, including Oakland, but it wasn’t immediately clear Thursday when or if they might do so. In counties where the mandates will be rescinded, the decision on masking will now fall to local school leaders.
One school official believes most will drop the mandates.
“If the counties move to change the recommendations, I think you’ll have a large number of those districts follow suit,” Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance for Education, a Michigan school advocacy organization.
Despite the local decisions, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services continues to recommend “universal masking” in K-12 education.
Lynn Sutfin, an MDHHS spokesperson, said nearly 700 infections were tied to school outbreaks in the past week.
“Although case rates and percent positivity have begun to decline in Michigan, we are still at what we consider to be a high plateau and we continue to monitor these metrics closely as they pertain to the use of mitigation strategies such as masks,” she wrote in an email to Bridge.
“To help protect students, staff and communities, we continue to recommend universal masking in schools and wearing masks in indoor public settings to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”
The moves come as omicron cases plummet, and as leaders across the country have dropped mask mandates this week
Michigan is averaging just under 4,000 new infections a day — considered high by standards established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but that’s a quarter of the cases that were reported just three weeks ago.
After hitting a peak of 5,009 COVID-19 patients in Michigan hospitals on Jan. 10, there were 2,595 patients as of Wednesday.
That’s caused public health leaders to reevaluate recommendations that for more than a year have ignited tensions, set off anger-filled school board meetings, created confusion, and prompted some students to switch schools in many communities.
“We are seeing cases and positivity, falling rapidly. Our hospitals are showing early signs of stabilization, and parents have had ample, ample opportunity to get their children vaccinated,” said Lisa Peacock, health officer for six northwest Michigan counties — Benzie, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, Leelanau, and Otsego.