West Michigan schools adjust to mask mandates upon return


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As students start returning to the classroom in West Michigan, districts are working to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

Health officers in Kent, Kalamazoo, Ottawa and Allegan counties have issued mask mandates for younger students not old enough to be vaccinated. This applies to both public and private schools.  

Superintendent Dan Behm with Forest Hills Public Schools says the Friday order by the Kent County Health Department did not change the district’s plans. The decision to require masks for this age group had already been made by district leaders, which gave parents more notice.

“It gave students and families and everyone a chance to really wrap their brains around it. We’re coming back to school, these are crowded indoor environments and we want all of our kids to be healthy and safe,” Behm said.

The district says it will keep following other protocols used last year to reduce the risk of COVID-19. The cafeteria tables at Northern Trails 5/6 School were spread out to help with social distancing. Outside picnic tables are also available.

Masks are optional outside on the playground because of the improved open-air ventilation.

Behm says masks, while not foolproof, are one way to reduce the coronavirus risk.

“With our students having masks, what we’re able to do is give the freedom for kids, who have not been in school for the last 17 months, who have compromised health issues. And so now, those kids are now able to come back to school,” Behm said.

The Forest Hills superintendent says students have been doing a great job at wearing masks.

“They’ve been used to, when they’re inside school buildings, to wear masks,” Behm said.

Rockford Public Schools did have to quickly change its policy after the county mask order was issued, according to Superintendent Mike Shibler.

“It’s not we have the flexibility to say well maybe, we’ll try to work things out. It’s a public health order and it’s something that we are mandated and required to do,” Shibler said.

The district’s fall policy originally left the decision on mask wearing to parents, which is still the case for seventh grade and above. He says administrators know some parents might not have been aware of the order on the first day, but the schools will follow the law.

“Unless they have a medical reason in those grades validated by an MD or DO for medical reasons, we’re going to tell them they have to eventually, within the next several days, you’ve got to wear the mask,” Shibler said.

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