GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Both Allegan County and Kalamazoo County will be requiring masks in schools for kindergarten through sixth grade this fall.
In a joint release Wednesday, the Allegan County Health Department and the Kalamazoo Health and Community Services Department announced that the new public health order is effective immediately. All students and staff in kindergarten through sixth grade buildings will be required to wear a mask indoors.
“This mandate just requires K-6 graders wearing a mask. The rationale is this is the population that doesn’t have access to getting the vaccine,” Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford said. “About 26,000 kids fall within that demographic in Kalamazoo County. These are the kids that don’t have access to the vaccine, so we feel as if this is the safest approach we can take to provide as much safety as possible for our schools.”
Teachers and staff that work with students that are “medically fragile” of all ages will also be required to wear masks. Seventh through 12th grade students are also encouraged to wear masks, with Rutherford saying it would be difficult to enforce a mandate for those age groups.
“The likelihood of being able to enforce it for high schoolers to self-report who’s vaccinated and unvaccinated would be very difficult and that’s not information we’re privy to,” Rutherford said.
The order will remain in effect until six weeks after a COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for kids age 5 and up, or until the health departments say otherwise.
“I know that this is a very emotional and polarizing topic for families and I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails and texts and phone calls,” Rutherford said. “Two and a half hours were spent at our Board of Commissioners meeting last night from parents on both ends of the discussion. But at the end of the day, we feel that this safest strategy that we can implement short of being able to vaccinating this group.”
“The feedback we got from schools was that they would not be making a requirement unless it was mandated from the health department, so we stepped in,” Lindsay Maunz, a spokesperson for the Allegan County Health Department, said.
The superintendent of Wayland Union Schools welcomed the mandate, saying it’s county officials’ job is to make calls like this one.
“We were planning on having a face mask to be optional for all students. This latest development, we will follow the mandates set forth by the health department,” Superintendent Christina Hinds said. “We were in an interesting situation as we followed the recommendations; there are so many recommendations out there that we could follow. And now we have a mandate and we know how we need to protect our students and that’s been set forth by the health officials.”
Now it’s her job to work out what enforcement will look like, particularly at the middle school, where the mandate will apply to some students but not others.
Kalamazoo Public Schools had already decided to require masks for all students.
In Kent County, Wyoming Public Schools announced Wednesday that it would require masks for everyone in all preschool to 12th grade buildings effective Monday.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause unfortunate disruptions to our goal of returning to ‘normal’ as a school and community,” a letter (PDF) from Superintendent Craig Hoekstra to the school community read in part. “WPS remains committed to the health and safety of our students, staff, and families. We have followed guidance from our federal, state, and county health officials and will continue to do so as we begin our 2021-2022 school year. Working together and following these recommendations will provide us with the best opportunity for a safe, in-person learning environment throughout the school year.”
Grand Rapids Public Schools and Forest Hills Public Schools announced mask mandates — for all buildings at GRPS and K-6 at Forest Hills — earlier this week. The Kent County Health Department has so far not issued a mask order for schools, though it is strongly recommending them.
Genesee County is the only other county in Michigan that has mandated masks in schools — but that may change.
“In having conversations with some of the other health officers in Michigan, I would anticipate that other counties will be potentially following as well,” Rutherford said.
—News 8 reporter Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.