Amid surging COVID-19 cases, the Berrien County Health Department has issued a public health order requiring students, teachers and staff at any county school — pre-kindergarten through grade 12 — to wear face masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.
As of Monday, only Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan schools required masks — all other county districts were mask optional.
The order goes into effect next Monday, Sept. 6. Masks will be required until community COVID-19 transmission is categorized as “low” or “moderate” for at least 21 consecutive days. There must also be no increase in hospitalizations or deaths during the same period.
Currently, the Centers for Disease control classifies Berrien County and the rest of Southwest Michigan as having “high” community transmission. As of Aug. 30, the county was averaging 37 new cases per day and had a test positivity rate of 12.7 percent.
In a news release, the department said the order applies to all “preschools, primary, secondary and vocational schools, youth camps and programs, childcare and tutoring centers, colleges, universities and other organized activities outside of the home where coursework is taught.”
Acting health officer Courtney Davis said the department’s top priority is keeping students in school for in-person learning.
“With the rapid increases in COVID-19 transmission over the past month, it is imperative that we take this action to keep students and teachers healthy and safe in the classroom,” Davis said in the news release. “While we are still learning about the potential impacts of the highly-contagious Delta variant that is present in Berrien County, what we do know is that masking is one of the best defenses against COVID-19 transmission.”
Health department medical director Dr. Rex Cabaltica said in the release that less than 35 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 are fully vaccinated, meaning “further action is needed to protect the health of all individuals in our school systems.”
And during an Aug. 26 Facebook Live update, Cabaltica urged parents to vaccinate children over age 12 and encouraged indoor mask use, especially in schools, comparing it to wearing a seatbelt.
“No one argues about wearing seat belts or putting kids in car seats because we know that it has reduced the deaths among children,” Cabaltica said. “It’s like that — it’s basically just putting on a seat belt for your kids when you send them off to school.”
The public health order does not apply to people actively eating or drinking, participating in outdoor activities, children under age 4, neurodivergent students of any age and teachers working with deaf, hard of hearing or neurodivergent students where masking would inhibit instruction.
It also does not apply to those who have a current medical reason for not wearing a mask confirmed in writing from a board-certified and licensed medical doctor or a doctor of osteopathic medicine.
Supervised masking is recommended for children aged 2 and over and all neurodivergent students.
This story has been updated.
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