Michigan schools left to decide on masks, facing criticism and applause from each side

To require masks or to not require masks. That's the question that every school district in Michigan must make on their own after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued recommendations.

No matter what the school leadership decides at each district, the reaction is met with both applause and criticism. Some school leaders feel they are caught in the middle when it comes to enforcing safety protocols like mask-wearing.

"MDHHS has released guidance on how schools can create a safer learning environment," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's Chief Medical Executive.

As it stands right now, each school district will have different requirements - even those right next to each other.

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Clarkston Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Shawn Ryan said educators are left making decisions about health - expertise that doesn't generally apply to them.

"Superintendents are not medical professionals but lately important decisions regarding medical health issues have come to rest on school administrators," Ryan said.

The district's policy is that masks are optional.

As the COVID infection rate increases again, some Metro Detroit parents question if that's the right decision. Patrica Tacaoca's son attends Novi Community Schools and thinks if it's not required, it won't happen.

"I think if you don’t make it mandatory people won’t use it," she said.

At the state's largest school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District, leaders will continue to implement a universal mask policy for everyone regardless of vaccination status when inside a school building or on a bus.

Masks are required on buses - that's a federal mandate - but inside buildings like at Novi Community  Schools, families will also have the right to choose.

"It’s fluid but right now the recommendation is no mask mandate but strongly recommend," Novie Superintendent Dr. Steve Matthews said.

The state recommends maks wearing, in accordance with the CDC, but they're not required.

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"Universal mask-wearing is also recommended by CDC and MDHHS for all teachers, students, and staff indoors regardless of vaccination status," Khaldun said.

But stopping short of a mask mandate or requirement is the problem for school leaders.

"When they say strongly recommend, that suggests there is another option that you don’t have to wear a mask," Matthews said. "We're trying to thread the line is difficult at times and if it truly is a mandate it would be helpful if somebody would say it's a mandate."

In Clarkston, Ryan said there are entities larger than the school district who can make them a mandate but have chosen not to do so.

"If the CDC, MDHHS or Oakland County Health Division wanted everyone to mask at school they have the authority to make it so," Ryan said.

The difference between this year and last year is that this school year will have a percentage of the school vaccinated against COVID-19. That, plus last year's success gives Matthews hope.

"The evidence we have suggests that we can manage this successfully without mandating masks," he said.