Royal Oak, Clawson school districts adopt emergency mask mandate

By: Sarah Wojcik, Jonathan Shead | Royal Oak Review | Published September 7, 2021

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ROYAL OAK/CLAWSON — Both Royal Oak Schools and Clawson Public Schools changed their mask protocols after the Oakland County Health Division issued an emergency health order requiring masks in educational settings Aug. 24.

The emergency health order mandates that masks be worn in daycares and elementary, middle, high and vocational schools regardless of vaccination status to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Our top priority is keeping students in school for in-person learning. Masking is one of the best defenses against increased transmission of COVID and high hospitalization rates among kids,” Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said in a prepared statement. “This order allows teachers to get back to educating our students and focusing on their success.”

He said the mask order only currently affects schools, but if COVID-19 numbers return to levels previously seen during the pandemic, the county may extend emergency mask orders to other businesses and industries. The week before the announcement, the county returned to an indoor mask mandate for all employees regardless of vaccination status.

“It’s my hope that this doesn’t last too long,” Coulter said. “Our thought was that we really just can’t afford to lose another year of in-person training, or worse, jumping back and forth between in-person and virtual, remote learning. We have seen what this variant of COVID has done in other parts of the country, and it’s very disruptive in an educational setting.”

COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are rising among children in  the U.S. — over 180,000 children tested positive the week of Aug. 12-19, up from the prior week when 120,000 child COVID-19 cases were reported, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated Oakland County is at “substantial risk of COVID-19 transmission, especially the Delta variant,” according to a county press release.

The release states that more than one in six of the 2,740 new cases of COVID-19 in Oakland County from Aug. 4-17 were school-age children, and more than 52,000 Oakland County residents ages 12-19 remained unvaccinated as the school year began. Students younger than 12 years old are ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The county’s seven-day test positivity rate has been climbing since the beginning of July and, as of press time, was 6.6%. Its seven-day case average is 178 new cases per day, or 1,250 new cases per week, with many among the unvaccinated, according to the release.

“Whoever makes this decision is going to get heat from people because this issue, unfortunately, has become politicized and polarized,” Coulter said. “My hope is that by taking (the decision) off of the superintendents, (it) allows them to concentrate on what they do best, which is educating our kids.”

He said the county would lift the emergency health order when its numbers return to “being a moderate transmission county, per the CDC’s data, which, frankly, we were a month ago.”

While the virus is unpredictable, Coulter said public health modeling indicates — if residents take the latest increase seriously and take appropriate precautions — the order might last through late September or early October, if not sooner.

“I think what happened a little bit, to some degree around June or so, we let our guard down, and thought maybe we were through the worst of COVID, but the Delta variant has proven that COVID is not done with us,” he said. “Continuing to do the things we know can make a difference are still really important.”

Exemptions apply to those eating or drinking; children under the age of 4 years (supervised masking is recommended for children who are at least 2 years old); anyone living with developmental conditions in which a mask would inhibit educational access; vaccinated teachers working with hard of hearing students or children with developmental conditions who benefit from facial cues; and persons who have a medical reason confirmed in writing from a physician.

On Aug. 24, Royal Oak Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Fitzpatrick sent a communication to district families regarding the change in mask policy.

“We will be requiring universal mask-wearing when indoors at all of our school buildings by students, staff, and visitors regardless of vaccination status,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Masks will be provided to those who need them. Staff and students are encouraged to bring their own clean masks to school daily.”

On Aug. 25, Clawson Public Schools Superintendent Tim Wilson issued a districtwide letter in response to the emergency order.

“As of today, August 25, 2021, any person inside our Baker building or any of our school buildings that is age four and above and does not have a documented exemption on file with the building administrator must wear a mask,” Wilson wrote. “This change to our COVID safety protocols will remain in place until the OCHD lifts the mask order.”

Additional OCHD mitigation strategies include staying home when sick, maintaining physical distance, using proper hand washing and hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting hard surfaces.