LANSING, Mich. - At least half of Michigan's public K-12 students must wear a mask in school, a figure that has grown as local health or education officials order requirements that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports but is hesitant to reinstitute statewide.
Several counties, including six of the 10 most populated ones, now mandate face coverings for students, teachers, and staff indoors regardless of vaccination status. Their health officers pointed to a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases due to the more contagious delta variant and, noting that kids under 12 cannot be vaccinated, said masks have reduced spread in classrooms.
Five counties' directives apply to kindergarten through sixth grade, though a number of affected districts also require face coverings in grades 7 to 12. Measures in Wayne and Oakland, the state's largest counties, cover all grades. Policies vary at schools in 76 counties where health departments have recommended, but not required, masking.
Whitmer has faced criticism for leaving the decision to local leaders being confronted with angry parents pushing to undo the mandates amid an increasingly volatile situation nationwide.
Her office said about 54% of students in traditional public schools are subject to face covering requirements, a number the governor expects to climb as the first day nears in places that have not yet started classes.
"It's not comfortable to make these hard decisions. If anyone knows that, it's me," the Democrat said this past week. "But the fact of the matter is a mask requirement is an important tool."
Michigan's indoor mask mandate, first implemented by Whitmer early in the coronavirus pandemic, was kept in place by the state health department after the Michigan Supreme Court struck down a law that gave the governor broad emergency powers. Her administration lifted the requirement in June amid vaccination gains and low infection rates but strongly recommends face coverings inside schools, where outbreaks can interrupt face-to-face instruction.
Classes are starting amid a two-month rise in test positivity and case rates. Hospitalizations have been increasing for five weeks in a state where -- for now -- the 14-day infection rate remains lower than in all but four states.
The state Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Public Health, has used outside research to estimate how long it would take for there to be a greater than 50% chance of transmission if one infectious child attends a class of 25 elementary students.
With complete masking, it is 120 hours. It drops to 24 hours with imperfect masking and to three hours with no masking. The time until transmission is less for high school students.
Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the state's top epidemiologist, said masking reduces the chance of being infected in school by 40% to 75%.
The public at large backs masking in schools.
About 58% of Americans favor requiring it for students, including 52% of parents, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Roughly 25% of adults and 28% of parents are opposed, while 17 % to 18% are neither for nor against.
But opinions differ by community, and anti-mask demonstrators have voiced objections to county commissions, health departments and school boards.
In Kent County on Thursday, commissioners heard hours of comments against the administrative health officer's rule requiring face coverings in preK-6 educational settings. Parents said it should be a choice, expressing concerns about masks' effects on physical and mental health. Some vowed to homeschool their kids. Others cited religious objections.
Some decried the "plandemic," a term used to suggest the virus was manufactured and its severity exaggerated. Others urged the firing of Dr. Adam London and recalls of elected officials who allow his order to stand.
"I as a parent know what's best for my child and that's for her to be at school with no mask," said Nick Prill, of Kentwood, who said his daughter suffered headaches from wearing one.
"We are facing a full-on assault against our children," said Aimee Sutherland of Caledonia, who has a 9-year-old son.
It is unclear how long the local regulations will last.
Some will extend 60 days beyond when vaccines are authorized for children under 12 or until a county's infection rate is "low" or "moderate" for a certain number of days or until further notice from the health officer.
In Wayne County, where school begins Sept. 7, education leaders welcomed masking requirements that were announced Friday.
"Our goal is for in-person learning to be a viable option, with minimal interruptions due to outbreaks or the need for quarantines, throughout the entire 2021-22 school year," said Daveda Colbert, superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency. "With the latest guidance, it is my hope that together as administrators, teachers, students, parents and community members, we can now shift our focus to engaging each and every learner at the highest level."