Kent County health officials urge but don’t order masks in schools

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Health Department says it is not ordering districts to require masks when school begins in the fall — at least for now.

“This decision is due to the reality that not all options have been exhausted to prevent the danger before us,” Administrative Health Officer Adam London said in a Friday statement (PDF). “The schools and the parents have even greater power than the health department to protect the children and the community in this instance.”

But that doesn’t mean London thinks masks are unnecessary. He strongly recommended that everyone follow guidance from federal and state health officials in terms of coronavirus mitigation measures in schools.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that kids wear masks in schools and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Friday updated its guidance to “strongly recommend” universal masking in schools — that is, for students, staff and visitors regardless of how the community is doing in terms of vaccination rates or case rates. MDHHS said that’s a key part of a “layered” strategy to slow the spread of the virus, along with encouraging vaccinations, physical distancing and consisting hand washing, among other steps.

“Like everyone else, I want to see schools open for in-person instruction and other activities without interruption. Our very best chance for that to happen is if schools, parents, and children embrace the strategies that have been proven to be effective,” London’s statement said.

London noted that kids under the age of 12, who cannot yet get vaccinated, would particularly benefit from the protection of masks.

“Concentrating unmasked and unvaccinated persons into classrooms is very concerning based on observations of what is happening in other parts of the country where the new school year has already begun,” his statement said. “While my greatest concern on this matter is for the welfare of the children, please understand that if COVID transmission is accelerating in any part of our community, that transmission will inevitably spill over into other parts of the community.”

London expressed worry about the highly transmissible delta variant, which is driving an increase in cases across the country, including in Michigan.

“(Kent County has) seen our overall average of new COVID cases rise from 11 per day in early July to 86 per day this week. The rate at which COVID tests are found to be positive has increased from 2.0% to 7.3% during that same timeframe. Most importantly, only 16 people were treated as inpatients at our local hospitals for COVID-19 during the last week of July; 50 people have been treated as inpatients at those hospitals this week,” London said. “This recent surge in cases, positivity, and hospitalizations closely matches the early days of the Delta variant related surge in other states.”

He said that even though about 70% of people in Kent County have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the most of those who aren’t vaccinated are kids.

London’s statement came as two groups demonstrated outside the Kent County Health Department offices on Fuller Avenue NE in Grand Rapids — more than 100 people in opposition to masks in schools and a few dozen in support.

“I believe in choice,” a parent identified only as Shelby said. “I believe that if your parent thinks your kid should wear a mask, put them in it. But if a parent doesn’t, they should not put them in it. It should not be mandated for all students.”

On the other side of the street, Dr. Apha Gupta Varma said masks are the only safe option.

“This is about keeping your students, your staff and yourself safe. There is only one decision here: keep our schools open, and do so legitimately and safely,” she said.

Also in favor of a mask requirement was a mother who asked only to be identified as Marie, who helped organize the demonstration.

“I’m just confused as to who is in charge of the public safety of the children,” she said. “I have a child with asthma who is going into the fifth grade. I have another child with asthma who’s very young, he’s a toddler, and I don’t want them getting sick.”

Over in the group of parents opposed, a mother named Jillian said her son, who has disabilities, struggles to understand people when they wear masks.

“It’s so important for my son, especially, and other kids with disabilities to be able to see your face to recognize facial expression, to be able to see smiles and joy and to be able to see what you’re saying. When the teachers and other students are wearing masks, they can’t ‘hear’ anything,” she said, putting her hand over her mouth to demonstrate.

Districts may still make their own decisions about whether to require masks. Grand Rapids Public Schools has decided at this point to strongly urge but not mandate them.

London said he knows there’s a lot of misinformation out there, but he urged people to trust his department, which is staffed by community members.

“…At the Kent County Health Department, we’re not nameless faceless bureaucrats making declarations from thousands of miles away,” London said. “We are people who live and work here in West Michigan. We are your neighbors, your family, and your friends. Getting you the best information possible is important to us because it’s personal for us.”

The Kent and Ottawa county health departments have issued public health orders about isolation protocols when students or school staff contract COVID-19 and for infected people’s close contacts.

—News 8’s Luke Laster contributed to this report.

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