Back to school in the Midwest: How mask mandates vary by state

Coronavirus

FILE – A student wears a face mask while doing work at his desk at the Post Road Elementary School, in White Plains, N.Y., in this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, file photo. U.S. health officials say the highly contagious delta version of the coronavirus is behind changes to mask guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week announced that fully vaccinated people should resume wearing masks indoors if they live in areas where the virus is surging. CDC officials said new information about the spread of the delta variant forced them to reverse course. The agency also said teachers and students everywhere should go back to wearing masks in schools. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, FIle)

(NEXSTAR) – Nearly every state in the U.S. is currently at a high level of COVID-19 community transmission, according to the CDC. In an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, many health officials are encouraging the public to go back to mask-wearing.

Mask mandates are popping up across the Midwest, especially in public schools. This is how districts in the region are handling masks as students head back to class.

Illinois

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, on Aug. 4, announced a mask mandate for all Illinois public schools. The mandate requires all students and faculty, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask while indoors. The executive order reversed a previous decision allowing school boards to make that determination.

“I had hoped that a state mask requirement in schools wouldn’t be necessary, but it is,” Pritzker said when announcing the new mandate.

For some parents, the mask mandate is a small price to pay to get their children back in the classroom.

“We still have teachers to protect, we still have students to protect, so we need to make sure we do that first before we just completely go back to normal,” Lisa Liggins-Chambers, the vice president of Barkstall Elementary’s Parent-Teacher Association in Champaign said. “And I think for our community and our school, that message is forefront.”

Others pushed back against the rule, holding “Unmask our Children” rallies across the state.

“As a parent, I feel more loss of freedoms everyday,” Brooke Bishop, who organized one such rally in Paris, Ill. said. “We’re trying to fight for those freedoms.”

The superintendent in Bishop’s district said the schools would follow the state guidelines.

Schools choosing not to follow the mandate face loss of state funding and loss of ability to participate in sports conferences. As of Aug. 20, 51 districts have been put on probation for noncompliance with the mask mandate.

Indiana

Masks are not required for Indiana schools at this time, with the decision left solely in the hands of individual school districts. Gov. Eric Holcomb recently offered his support to districts adopting mask mandates, saying they “are making a wise decision when the facts are warranted.”

Rachel Burke, Indiana PTA president, said she’s not surprised the governor is not issuing statewide restrictions for schools.

“We’re happy, though, that he is not barring school districts from making those decisions,” Burke said.

Within days of school starting, some Indiana schools were already seeing dozens of students on quarantine.

“We’re probably around 120 kids who have been involved in some manner of a quarantine,” Patrick Spray, superintendent of Clark-Pleasant Community Schools, said.

Masks are optional in Spray’s district; however, he and other Indiana school administrators have said they are not ruling out mask mandates in the future.

Several of Indiana’s largest school districts in the Indianapolis area began requiring masks for indoor areas this week after starting the school year without such requirements. Noblesville Schools released a COVID-19 updateon Aug. 13 saying virus rates are putting in-person learning, athletics, performing arts and special events at risk. 

The Indiana PTA wants to see clearer guidance for schools from the state health department and the CDC.

Michigan

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has “strongly recommended” universal masking in schools; however, it has not ordered districts to do so.

“More than half of the counties in the state are at ‘high’ transmission level (by CDC standards) and most others are at substantial,” Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the chief epidemiologist for the MDHSS said on Aug. 18. “And just a reminder, this is the standard where CDC recommends mask wearing by all individuals regardless of vaccination status when in indoor public spaces.”

Some local officials are going the extra step to get masks in schools.

Both the Allegan and Kalamazoo county health departments have ordered masks for all K-6 schools within their jurisdictions.

In Kent County, the health department has so far not issued a mask order for schools, though it is strongly recommending them. Wyoming Public Schools, however, announced it would require masks for everyone in all preschool to 12th grade buildings effective Aug. 23.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause unfortunate disruptions to our goal of returning to ‘normal’ as a school and community,” a letter from Superintendent Craig Hoekstra to the school community said. “WPS remains committed to the health and safety of our students, staff, and families. We have followed guidance from our federal, state, and county health officials and will continue to do so as we begin our 2021-2022 school year. Working together and following these recommendations will provide us with the best opportunity for a safe, in-person learning environment throughout the school year.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools and neighboring Forest Hills Public Schools recently announced mask mandates for all buildings at GRPS and K-6 at Forest Hills.

Not everyone in Michigan is happy to see mask mandates being imposed. In fact, State Rep. John Damoose introduced a bill that would ban school districts from implementing the mandates. The bill was referred to the State House Committee on Education.

Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced it agrees with the CDC guidelines, including recommending that all teachers, staff, students and visitors of K-12 schools should wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Gov. Tony Evers recently urged all schools in the state to mask up this fall; however, it is not a state mandate, leaving it to the school districts to make their own decisions regarding masks.

Many districts, including Fond du Lac, Howard-Suamico School District and Oshgosh, have announced plans to keep masks optional for students and staff. Other districts, such as Green Bay Area, will require masking for K-6 graders; however, masks will be optional for those in grades 7 and above.

According to the Gibraltar School District Reopening Handbook for 2021-22, students grades K-6 and all students riding a bus are required to wear a mask. Students in grades 7-12 are encouraged to wear one. Employees around grades K-6 and employees riding the bus are required to wear a face mask. Unvaccinated employees working with grades 7-12 are encouraged.

The Eau Claire Area School District announced students in grades PK through 8th grade will be required to wear masks when school starts Sept. 1.

In a letter to staff and families, Superintendent Mike Johnson said the decision was based on the recent increase of COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County.  He also sighted evidence the Delta variant spreads more easily than previous forms of the virus.

A mask mandate for high school students in the county will be determined later in August.

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