Washtenaw County Health Department Orders Masks In Schools

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Washtenaw COVID-19

Citing the increasing spread of COVID-19, the Washtenaw County Health Department has usurped local school districts' powers and ordered mandatory masking in K-12 schools, public and private.  A second order issued Thursday order requires individuals in educational settings to quarantine as directed if they are ill or exposed to COVID-19. Failure to heed quarantine and contact tracing orders can result in misdemeanor charges and fines.

The orders take effect Tuesday as school resumes after Labor Day.

A Washtenaw County Health Department issued Thursday stated the requirements are aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 while transmission remains "high" or "substantial" according to the CDC's data tracker.

There few exceptions to the rules:

  • Those eating or drinking, swimming or diving, or alone in a room, are not required to wear a mask at that time.
  • Anyone under four is not required to wear a mask, though supervised masking is recommended for children at least two.
  • Anyone with developmental conditions whose learning would be inhibited by the mask is not required to wear it.
  • Vaccinated staff working with children with hearing issues or developmental issues are not required to wear masks.
  • Anyone who has a medical reason (in writing, from a doctor) is not required to wear a mask.

These orders supersede the plan previously outlined by the school district.

“Unfortunately, we are trending in the wrong direction, and it’s imperative that we use all of our tools to prevent and control COVID in educational settings and provide in-person learning as safely as possible,” said Jimena Loveluck, health officer with Washtenaw County Health Department.

The county's press release stated the goal of the orders was to prevent community spread. So why are mask mandates only being required in K-12 schools and nowhere else? Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, the spokesperson for the health department, answered that question.

"Primarily because of the importance of preserving in-person learning for students and doing so as safely as possible. Schools also have a significant proportion of their population not yet eligible for vaccination. Others are more vulnerable with vaccination," Ringler-Cerniglia said.

Another aim, Ringler-Cerniglia said, is to protect children and keep children in the classroom.

"Masking in schools can prevent/reduce spread, secondary spread or outbreaks in school settings as well as reduce the number of students in quarantine," she said.

She was asked about stats that show school-age children having more natural immunity to COVID-19 than a vaccinated senior citizen.

"A lower risk of severe outcomes is not necessarily a reason to avoid non-medical/non-invasive prevention strategies; schools also have many people of other ages regularly present and subsets of kids with added vulnerabilities or health concerns in need of educational services and support," she said. "In addition, spread among children can impact other vulnerable adults/their close contacts as well as lead to more school interruptions."

According to the county's press release, the mask mandate will remain in effect until the transmission rates in Washtenaw County are "moderate" or lower for at least 14 straight days, or until Loveluck provides further notice. Ringler-Cerniglia said she would not predict whether or not she thought this mask mandate might last most of the school year.

"But using all of our prevention tools and strategies will give us the best possible chance of lower transmission," she said.

94 percent of the counties in America, including Washtenaw, have "high transmission." That means 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days. To get to "moderate" transmission and remove the masks, that number needs to drop below 50 new cases per 100,000 residents. For Washtenaw County, with 367,000 residents, that means fewer than 183 new cases in a week.

Between Sept. 1 and June 12 in 2020, there were two periods that would have qualified as "moderate transmission. The very beginning of the school year, and the very end.

For the most part, the county's masking health order doesn't differ much from the plan announced by Superintendent Steve Laatsch last month.

The county's quarantine order also shares some similarities with the Saline plan. A full vaccinated individual who was a close contact, in school or on a bus, does not have to quarantine if they are symptom-free.  Unvaccinated, symptom-free close-contacts can return if they submit to testing at least three times a week during the quarantine period - but they cannot participate in extracurricular activities and must quarantine when not in school.

These changes are more likely to cause a stir in some of the county's smaller districts and private schools which planned to return to class with looser mask rules and more liberal quarantine rules.

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