Michigan counties rescinding school mask orders; Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne to lift mandate Feb. 28

Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties say they will lift their mask mandates at schools and daycares on Feb. 28, rescinding the emergency orders that had been in place for months and required districts enforce face coverings among students, teachers, and staff.

The health division at Oakland County said a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, as well as increasing vaccination rates as the reason for lifting the order. Washtenaw cited the ‘considerable’ changes among pandemic conditions.

Several counties with mask orders in place were expected to update their rules, following the falling case load from the omicron surge over the winter.

"As we see our critical measures of vaccinations, hospital admissions, and cases moving in a direction that tell us the COVID-19 impact on our community is greatly improving, the time is right to remove the mask order for daycares and educational institutions," Health Division Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust said. "We must remain vigilant, however, while we remain in a pandemic. It is vital that we as individuals maintain the measures that are critical to limiting the spread of the virus while allowing businesses and schools to stay open, and our hospitals to operate safely."

The announcement gives school districts a two-week notice to prepare staff and families for the upcoming changes. Districts can still implement their own mask rules if they want.

The health division also strongly recommends that people continue wearing masks indoors, including in schools. 

"Local health orders have been necessary during the pandemic, and these orders have helped protect in-person learning, critical health care capacity, and overall health," says Jimena Loveluck, MSW, health officer with Washtenaw County Health Department.

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Metrics like test positivity show reported cases have fallen 50% since its peak in early January. COVID-19 cases fell 40% and the seven-day average of new cases declined 73%. Hospital admissions have also fallen across the state, dropping 72% since their peak on Jan. 10 in Oakland County. 

"We are now at a place in the pandemic where an emergency health order should be replaced by individual action to protect ourselves, especially masking in public and getting vaccinated," said health director Leigh-Anne Stafford. "As the local public health agency, we are committed to continuing our support of local school districts by providing best practices, current COVID-19 data, and recommendations for staying safe and healthy."

According to the state's COVID-19 dashboard, 75.8% of residents in Oakland County 5 years or older have gotten their first dose. Seniors over 65 have the highest first-dose protection at nearly 93%.

In recent days, New Jersey and New York have also announced they would be dropping their statewide mask orders due to similar trends of falling cases.

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The omicron surge pushed Michigan and much of the U.S. into a new stage of the pandemic, where health outcomes were less severe following an infection, but the number of cases dwarfed previous surges. 

During the 2021 summer when schools debated the need for mask orders, district meetings between the board and parents became flashpoints amid discussions about the need for face coverings. Many of those meetings became moot after the most populated counties announced mask orders in all districts.