School districts have begun going back on masks, but one small Michigan town thinks it’s not time for that just yet. Here’s its plan for keeping school safe and getting back to normal.

EATON RAPIDS, Mich.—Eaton Rapids Public Schools recently released a new roadmap for how it plans to roll back its mask requirement when COVID-19 cases drop in frequency. But until then, it’s keeping its eyes on the road, with universal masking in schools until the county can get itself out of the high-risk category.

The school district has stood tall amid protests and misinformation, with an unwavering science-based stance on COVID-19 health protocols. And it’s worked.

By keeping close counts of cases and requiring masks, amid other measures, Eaton Rapids has not had a school shutdown or closure yet, consistently testing at low positivity for COVID-19. 

The town of 5,000 isn’t a liberal-policy stronghold. But the school district has opted to require masks indoors and actively promote vaccines because health officials say that’s how to stop COVID-19 from spreading in schools. Eaton Rapids, in turn, has found that recommendation to be fruitful.

“See how serious we were about enforcing a mask requirement,” Bill DeFrance, Eaton Rapids Public Schools superintendent, wrote in an email to The ‘Gander.

In light of a Republican-led state legislature measure, numerous health departments in Michigan backed off their existing mask rules, fearing that funding would be withheld at the start of the month. Gov. Whitmer has promised that this measure is unenforceable and unconstitutional, but the mere threat of reduced funding forced health counties to collapse their rules. 

The Berrien County Health Department, after withdrawing its order, said it stood to lose $1.5 million had it fought the legislature, Chalkbeat Detroit reported.

Eaton Rapids Public Schools new roadmap for loosening of COVID-19 safety measures corresponding with CDC risk levels.

These health departments spanned five other counties, including Eaton County, which had its requirement suspended under strained circumstances. The local health department urged schools to keep masking in place.

“We urge our local school districts and other educational settings to continue to implement universal masking policies and follow quarantine best practices,” said Colette Scrimger, health officer for the Barry-Eaton District Health Department (BEDHD). “It’s critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19 within schools and our communities. We will continue to evaluate the situation and will consider issuing orders in the future as the question of the constitutionality of Senate Bill 82 and House Bill 4400 becomes clearer and if community conditions necessitate such orders.”

Through the noise of state bills and protests, which included one person illegally and unsuccessfully attempting a citizen’s arrest on Scrimger, Eaton Rapids Public Schools immediately issued a statement, reaffirming its commitment to smart school masking policies that have thus far kept students safe.

“This order has little impact on Eaton Rapids Public Schools as we previously had a health protocol package that included hand washing, use of hand sanitizers, the practice of social distancing, the gathering of contact tracing data, the wearing of masks, and promoting vaccines for staff and students, when available,” the district wrote on Facebook. “We will continue to wear masks on buses, inside ERPS facilities, at inside sports activities, and at LCC classes for our high school students.These health protocols have helped us in isolating (have COVID) and quarantining (in close contact) and keeping your children in school.”

Under the new roadmap, the school will reevaluate its plan every month. As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes eligible for younger children, the district said it’s possible that those requirements could more easily be masked as well.

DeFrance spoke with The ‘Gander over email about his district’s decision to maintain masks and other notable health policies. Below is the thread.

Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity and transparency.

What went into the initial decision to require masks at school? What other important elements of your safety protocols do you think should be highlighted?

We reacted to the [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] guidance and worked with key administrators and all Board members to determine a district position. [There was] significant agreement but not unanimous.

There’s a lot of debate about what is trusted science today. What advice and sources did you all lean on to reach your decision?

[We listen to the] MDHHS, CDC, BEDHD. [We have] weekly conference calls with BEDHD.

You mentioned on our call that some schools would like masks required, but lack the standing or fortitude to make masks policy absent health department orders. Could you expand on that? What gives Eaton Rapids Public Schools that fortitude?

The makeup of the administrative team and the Board members.

What’s the feedback you’ve received about how students have responded to masks and vaccines (when applicable)?

Students have been great after the first week. Numerous students and parents wanted to test the water, so to speak!

Everyone really has been good about the health protocols. We would like higher vaccine participation of our 12 and older students.

When you say “test the water,” what do you mean?

See how serious we were about enforcing a mask requirement.

Has your school district been successful with its measures in place? How do you measure that success?

Our district school population (staff and students) has run consistently in the 1.5% -2% range as a combined percentage of people in isolation and/or quarantine with no class shutdowns or building closures.

At what stage of the pandemic would you be willing to remove mask requirements?

We are finalizing a roadmap that ties more relaxed mask protocols to the CDC color-coding of risk.