While many Michigan school districts have added mask warrants as COVID-19 cases increase, one district in the state’s northwest is moving in the opposite direction.
Kalkaska public schools started the year without a mask requirement, but a few weeks after the students returned to class, Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer had imposed one.
The district had 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Heitmeyer said, and more than 200 students – one-seventh of the district’s population – were in quarantine due to the exposure.
Heitmeyer said a mask warrant was the district’s response to this immediate spike in cases.
But the rule lasted less than a week. The school board canceled it at its next meeting, despite the number of COVID-19 cases in the district having nearly doubled by then to 40.
Now, the district has no mask requirements, no quarantine requirements, and no coronavirus testing requirements.
All of these are mitigation measures recommended by health officials and three separate studies published friday by the federal Centers for Disease Control has shown that school districts without mask requirements are hit harder by COVID-19 outbreaks than districts that impose requirements.
But Heitmeyer said the Kalkaska district was facing students and parents exasperated by the warrant.
âLots of people who could potentially disrupt the system,â he said. âWe want to educate all of our children, and we want to do it in person. It is by no means an easy thing to maneuver.
âThe community really spoke up,â Heitmeyer said. “In the end, it was going to be difficult to apply.”
Kevin Hughes, the health worker for the District No. 10 health department, which covers Kalkaska and nine other counties, said the district was at risk of sowing new outbreaks of COVID-19 by hosting face-to-face classes without a mask, neither quarantine nor testing.
But he said turning those recommendations into warrants would also come with a risk. People who are already suspicious of public health officials could be pushed even further in their opposition.
“Won’t they take advice or recommendations on other things? Hughes wondered. “Are we going to see fewer and fewer people vaccinating their children against all the other diseases we were vaccinating against?” “
In some places, like Kalskaska, Hughes worried, the backlash could be so strong that requiring masks or quarantine would be counterproductive, even dangerous.
For Norm Hess, the question is not hypothetical. Hess is the head of the Michigan Association for Public Health, which represents all of the state’s local health departments.
âWe have had several incidents over the past two weeks where health workers have been physically threatened for doing the same thing they were hired to do,â Hess said. “Just yesterday we had a health worker at a public meeting where a citizen tried to arrest him. “
Ingham County Health Officer noted she received death threats and the Kent County health worker noted he almost got off the road after announcing mask requirements last month.
Hess said public health departments are not made for this kind of hyper-partisan atmosphere. The best they can do, he said, is come up with science-based recommendations and hope the public will heed them.