The St. Clair County Health Department issued a public order Wednesday requiring masks be worn in K-12 education settings starting next week.
According to a news release late Wednesday afternoon, the order will run from Monday, Jan. 3, through Friday, Jan. 28. Dr. Annette Mercatante, the county’s medical health officer, cited the threat of the omicron variant on top of the existing high-case rate in the area in issuing the mask order.
“It is prudent to take pre-emptive action now to ensure in-person learning continues within our schools,” Mercatante said in a statement. “We understand how difficult virtual schooling has been on both students and parents throughout the pandemic, which is why we are putting mitigation strategies in place to reduce the impact.
“It is clear that strong recommendations are not adequate to compel the level of compliance needed to mitigate the spread of this virus, which is why a temporary order is needed until the full impacts of Omicron are clarified.”
The order was issued under the Michigan Public Health Code, allowing local health officers to take action to protect public health and prevent the spread of an illness.
It requires all educational entities to make sure children from kindergarten up through 12th grade are consistently and properly wearing a facial covering while inside any closed building or structure. That includes all persons, regardless of vaccination status.
As of Wednesday, three omicron cases had been formally identified in St. Clair County. And as of Wednesday morning, the total of coronavirus cases had reached 30,645, which was up by 549 more cases than reported five days prior.
The rate of new cases remained at more than 100 a day. The test positivity rate on Tuesday was 22.1%, and the county’s risk level remained high.
Health order includes several exceptions
Additionally, the order defines an educational institution as any tutoring center, primarily through secondary or vocational school, colleges, and universities where K-12 coursework is taught; fully vaccinated individuals as those who’ve had a completed dosage of the COVID vaccine for at least two weeks; and people in educational settings as students, teachers and staff, volunteers and other attendees on educational premises.
Exceptions to the order include:
- Eating and drinking
- Being outside in activities that don’t involve physical contact
- Children under age 5, though recommended
- Being engaged in pre-kindergarten programs
- Performing arts or athletics, though at the discretion of each district
- Students with developmental conditions of any age attending school
- Teachers working with kids who are hard of hearing or with developmental conditions and benefit from facial cues
- Having another disability, preventing from wearing a facial covering
In her statement, Mercatante said health officials understood the difficulty students and parents have faced with virtual schooling, adding it was a part of why mitigation measures like required masking should be put in place.
“It is clear that strong recommendations are not adequate to compel the level of compliance needed to mitigate the spread of this virus, which is why a temporary order is needed until the full impacts of omicron are clarified,” she said.
County attorney says mask order doesn’t risk state health funding
The mask order comes three months since the county’s quarantine order was rescinded last fall.
At the time, officials cited state budget legislation that threatened half a million in public health funding if an order remained in place on Oct. 1.
When asked about the financial implication Wednesday, Gary Fletcher, the county’s legal counsel, said he didn’t think the health department was at risk with the new order.
He said the original budget measure in September — spurring rescissions around the state — applied to public health orders in effect at the time the budget was adopted.
“Then, there was funding that was at risk is essentially what it said. So, it didn’t apply to things, which it couldn’t anyway, that were done in the future,” Fletcher said by phone. “… Dr. Mercatante and I talked about this question, and I’m confident there’s not an issue there.”
The health department has previously strongly recommended masking to school districts. Port Huron Area Schools more recently required masking with temporary rules that ended Dec. 17.
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.