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Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he is likely to drop the district’s mask mandate as early as next week, citing low infection rates in the city and across schools in recent weeks. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, students in the Detroit district may soon be able to go to school without having to wear a mask, though some say they’ll continue to play it safe.

This story also appeared in Chalkbeat Detroit

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he is likely to drop the district’s mask mandate as early as next week, citing low infection rates in the city and across schools in recent weeks.

“The district’s infection rate last week was below 1% and the city’s rate is under 5%,” Vitti wrote  in an email to Chalkbeat on Tuesday, referring to the percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID-19. “If this continues this week then we are likely to move to an optional mask situation by next week.”

State and county health officials across Michigan began relaxing mask rules and recommendations a few months ago for K-12 schools and day care centers, as COVID cases and hospitalization rates declined. That left it up to local school districts to decide whether to keep those requirements in place. 

Detroit is among the few remaining school districts in the state, along with Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, that still have a mask requirement.

Vitti said in February that the district’s mask order would remain in place, based on recommendations from the Detroit Health Department. Later that month, he told Chalkbeat that he envisioned lifting the rule sometime after the district’s weeklong spring break ended on April 3, as long as the district and the city did not observe a surge in COVID cases when students returned from vacation.

And they didn’t. For the week of March 21, before spring break, the district reported an infection rate of 0.46%; the week after spring break, the rate was 0.43%. 

Currently, Wayne County falls in the “low” tier of case rates, for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend mask mandates.

Last month, the district began to dial back other COVID precautions, discontinuing its daily symptom and temperature checks for employees and students, based on city health department recommendations. The district currently requires weekly testing of students and staff, as well as social distancing in classrooms of at least 3 feet.

Meanwhile, health officials are reporting rising COVID cases elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Northeast, driven in part by a subvariant of the highly infectious omicron variant. Philadelphia announced Monday that it would reinstate its indoor mask mandate in light of a sharp increase in COVID infections. 

Some Detroit students said they remain wary of the district making masks optional. 

“I know for a fact that I’m still going to be wearing my mask, but I genuinely don’t feel as though that’s a smart decision,” said TaLia Price, a student from Cass Technical High School. “I just don’t think that is safe until we know that we can fully manage COVID and keep it low.”

Alexis Pickett, a student at Renaissance High School, said she believes the school district needs “to move forward,” although she has reservations.

“COVID has kind of been low at the moment. It’s been getting a lot better, which is really good,” she said. “But I’m not sure about releasing the mask mandate, especially with after school activities, and how close in proximity we are with each other in classrooms.”

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said that a recent survey of the union’s members found an even split among teachers on whether to keep the mask requirement beyond spring break.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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