Mask Mandates, Vaccines and Virtual Learning: Schools Forced to Make Tough Decisions in New School Year

The state’s decision to stay out of the school mask mandate argument creates a patchwork of approaches to school safety across the state.

The start of the new school year comes as the threat of the COVID-19 delta variant worsens in Michigan.

As part of the weekly series MichMash, hosts Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth talk about the tough decisions local school officials are making as students get ready to return to class.

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Many school officials made back-to-school plans this year assuming the pandemic would be receding. Instead, we could see another surge as big as the one we saw this past spring.

That means more education officials are having to make tough calls. One of those decisions is about whether to require students to wear masks. Recently, Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said she has advised Gov. Whitmer that a statewide mask mandate would help slow the spread of COVID-19. But there’s no indication the governor plans to take that advice and give it the force of law. The governor has indicated she does not intend to issue any new COVID-19 orders in the near future, and maybe not ever.

That leaves school districts to make those decisions for themselves. And as education officials will tell you every time you bring this up. they are not public health experts. They are education experts. Some superintendents and school board members have said they want the state to make this decision so they can concentrate on the academic side of things. But, instead, we’re looking at a patchwork of different approaches across the state. 

RelatedMichigan Educators, Kids Get Ready to Return to School Amid Rising COVID-19 Numbers

“[Parents] might be sending their child to a place that masks and they might be in a school system that doesn’t mask. But my sense is that many, many, many school districts around the state are requiring masking. And they might not have been a month ago,” University of Michigan School of Education Dean Dr. Elizabeth Moje recently said on WDET’s Detroit Today.

One thing on the minds of many parents is how flexible schools will be to change their plans if the pandemic gets even worse. Kids under the age of 12 still can’t be vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to infection. So if things get really bad, will they be able to easily go virtual or implement more safety measures to keep kids safe?

We’re hearing different things on that front from school officials. Moje says districts are now, perhaps, even more capable of offering virtual options after last year now having more experience with the technology and approaches needed to make that work. Other school officials say the reality on the ground might make it difficult to do that.

Finally, there’s the issue of vaccines themselves. Right now, the state doesn’t have a vaccination plan in the anticipation of vaccines becoming available to kids of all ages. Recently the Michigan Association of School Administrators issued a statement urging state and local health officials to develop that plan. 

More from MichMash:

Solutions for Worsening Plastic Pollution in Great Lakes: “It’s Not Enough Just to Pick Up Trash”

Infrastructure Bill May Help Address Flooding in Michigan, But Only If There’s a Plan, Dingell Says

Michigan’s Petition Initiative Process Is A Mess

Pandemic Has Hurt Government Transparency, Reporters and Watchdogs Say

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  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.
  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.