Genesee County, MI—The county-wide school mask mandate that required all children grades K-12 to wear masks while at school will be lifted starting Dec. 22.

Genesee County Medical Health Officer Pamela Hackert made the announcement during a press conference Nov. 15.

“As of December 22, classrooms, other settings, activities, and educational settings that consist entirely of people five and up, the mask mandate will be removed. But we strongly recommend that school districts continue to require universal masking for students, staff, teachers and visitors,” Hackert said.

Officials said the decision is due in part to the release of the pediatric vaccine which was approved for use in children ages 5-11 by the Food and Drug Administration Nov. 3.

The vaccine has a 90% efficacy rate, Hackert said.

“We still have a lot of work to do. But we do know that the biggest thing, the biggest tool in our toolbox to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is the vaccine. We’re encouraging everyone to get a vaccine, but that is a personal choice that everyone needs to make in consultation with their health care providers. And because that vaccine is readily available for all above the age of five, that we do feel comfortable moving into a spot where we will no longer require masks in schools,” Vice Chair of the Genesee County Board of Commissioners Domonique Clemons said.

Lifting the mandate Dec. 22 allows time for families to decide what is best for their children, Hackert said.

“(December 22) is six weeks from the time (the pediatric vaccine) was available in the community. It gives folks a couple of weeks to make their decisions, talk about it with their doctors, and then get the vaccine, get the second dose and then give the children two weeks to do it,” Hackert said.

When the mask mandate was first ordered on Aug. 12, Genesee County  was at high risk for COVID transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning the county had 50-99 cumulative cases per 100,000 residents within a seven-day period.

The county is now categorized as “moderate,” meaning the county had 10-50 cumulative cases per 100,000 residents within the past seven days.

Hackert said the intention of the health department was to lift the mask mandate once COVID transmission lowered to moderate.

Though schools will no longer be required to enforce mask wearing, Hackert said the vaccine is the “best means to control” drastic case increases.

“The only exception would be if there is a variant that we don’t have any knowledge of now arising that these vaccines will not work against,” Hackert said.

The Genesee County Health Department began distributing the pediatric vaccine Nov. 9. Hackert said they’ve seen a positive response thus far.

“We’re very happy to see a lot of families are now coming out. So, the parents may not have taken the vaccine, but now they’re coming out with their children and getting the vaccine themselves as well,” she said.

The mask mandate still applies to activities in an educational setting which includes a child below the age of 5 until six weeks after a vaccine is available for the age group, Hackert said.

Health officials still encourage residents to practice mitigation measures including social distancing, masking up, washing hands frequently, and staying home if sick.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...