First Person | I opened schools early. Then COVID struck. I stand by the call.

As I was picking up the phone, I could hear the concern in my high school principal’s voice. “We have a student who tested positive for COVID.”

My heart sank. We had only been back in session three days. Immediately, I began to second-guess my decision to send restart Kingsley Area Schools’ new year two weeks before Labor Day. 

During the “Stay Home Stay Safe” period last spring, students unquestionably fell behind. Not only did their academics suffer, but also schools are a safe place for many students, and for some, their main source of food. I know that getting kids back in school is the best thing for the vast majority of our 1,500 students. The governor allowed an early start by executive order, something I hadn’t been previously able to get approval for. Honestly, I figured the first couple of weeks would be smooth. We’re 12 miles south of Traverse City and no other schools near us were starting as early as we were. Skill center and athletics were on hold, so my students wouldn’t be intermingling with students from other districts. None of this mattered. Despite our best efforts and honest intentions, I had the first student in northern Michigan with COVID and it was a result of a decision I made.

Kevin Smith

Keith Smith is superintendent of Kingsley Area Schools, 12 miles south of Traverse City. (Courtesy photo)

Looking down at my phone, I could see that it was almost 3 p.m. Nothing ever happens at a convenient time. Then I remembered it was Thursday and we had a four-day weekend coming. There was some irony in thinking to myself : “Well, I guess you caught a small break.”

The health department had asked for seating charts for every classroom the student had been in. The hard part came next. All I could do is wait. The health department started the contact tracing to determine how many students were close contacts and needed to quarantine. Our case was a high school student. Immediately my mind started running to the extremes. How many students will this impact? Will it be 50? Perhaps 100. By the next day the health department called to let us know that 12 additional students had been identified for quarantine. Honestly, there was some relief in hearing that. Then I felt guilty for feeling good about hearing that number. Twelve students would not cause a shutdown of the district or building. Still, that’s 12 students who were exposed to the virus in a building I am responsible for. 

My thoughts quickly transitioned to what steps we needed to take before students could return the following week. I called a meeting for the principal and district maintenance and custodial staff. Every classroom is disinfected nightly per our safe start to school plan. We used some of the CARES Act money to purchase an electrostatic disinfectant and sanitizing machine for each building. I was told when the custodians are done cleaning in the evening, they grab the machine and hit as many rooms as they can. It turns out we were hitting the entire building every two days. Everything that should be done was already done. We decided we would re-disinfect the classroom the student had been in a third time prior to students returning.  Our back-to-school plan went beyond the state recommendation of only contacting parents of students that were close contacts to include any student in a classroom with a COVID-positive student. Being that this was our first case, I decided to send out an email and all-call to the entire district,  letting parents know. While this was obviously bad news, I wanted to be as transparent as possible. Thankfully,  we did not have an outbreak after that initial case. 

My phone started ringing with requests from the news media. Most of the stories were pretty straightforward. One radio host was nice enough to send the questions he intended to ask me live on the radio. On the list were questions about not requiring students to wear masks (we are in Phase 5) and whether it was worth it to bring students back. While not happy about the questions, I thought they were fair. I stand by not requiring students to wear a mask. We have followed the Michigan Safe Start Plan. For the most part we are following Phase 4 recommendations. Mandatory mask-wearing is not in the plan for Phase 5. 

My community does not support mandatory mask-wearing for all students. Honestly, who are we kidding? Kindergartners are not going to do it. They are going to trade masks, use them to wipe up spills, and drag them through all kinds of things throughout the day. Plus, we offer an online program for students and families that do not feel comfortable in the buildings. Now the tough question: Was it worth it? Most people don’t know that my two daughters go to the high school. One of them was in a classroom with the COVID-positive student. 

Truly, I make decisions for all children as if they are my own. I went to the state government website to confirm something I thought to be true. How many school-age individuals have died from COVID? Looking at the screen I was surprised to see zero, despite thinking I recalled hearing about one. 

A couple of years back, I lost three students to suicide. While I understand that COVID presents a very real risk to everyone, it is far less than the very real effect isolation does or can have on students. I have watched this occur with my own daughters. 

Students need to be back in school around trusted adults. I can confidently say that we made the right decision, for now. There is no arrogance on my part that come heck or high water we will stay open. It is my personal belief that we will experience a few shutdowns throughout the year. Seeing what is occurring on college campuses reaffirms my belief. 

Regardless of what any school is doing, please know that everyone is doing the best they can for their students. If I worked in a different community, I very well may make a different decision based on demographics and the wishes of the community.


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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

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Comments

What?
Mon, 09/21/2020 - 8:25pm

"My community does not support mandatory mask-wearing for all students. Honestly, who are we kidding? Kindergartners are not going to do it. They are going to trade masks, use them to wipe up spills, and drag them through all kinds of things throughout the day. Plus, we offer an online program for students and families that do not feel comfortable in the buildings."

Do people in your community wear clothing or is it optional? Do the kindergartners poop on the floor or in a toilet? Seems like your district has no rules because no one believes in rules. That's probably why there are suicide cases. There is no sense of community responsibility, citizenship. It's the wild wild west, Somalia on steroids. Once we as a country start believing again that united we stand and divided we fall, we will achieve greatness, but I don't think we're near that goal. We seem to be moving in the opposite direction, extreme individualism, a house divided on a shaky foundation.

middle of the mit
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 12:28am

Will these people stand by their decisions if they prove to be bad? As per this article : https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-health-watch/surviving-covid-life-chan...,

and many others....there may be long term effects that affect peoples lives. Will these people recieve the same accountability they want the Governor to take over the deaths that were in the nursing homes due to her putting Covid patients in them...........or will they faint reverence, while blaming others for lessor deaths than their policies would have had? And we aren't even talking about death here. This is about long term effects from those who recover. It IS documented. And not just with adults. With NO pre-existing conditons coming to a court near you soon........Society is going to have to deal with this in one way or another. Or we can't call our selves a society.

Sinful Pride
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 4:06am

Why is it so hard to admit it was/is a mistake/dumb to reopen the schools at this time?

Michael
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 8:49am

It is a brave thing you are doing sir, I applaud you. Also, the death of even one school age child is one death too many.

Best of Luck

Anna
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 9:23am

I am concerned about the inconsistencies in child death reporting. I read an article here that stated that 5 children have died from Covid in Michigan. Yet, according to the AAP, there have been no child deaths due to Covid in Michigan. In fact, their reporting once had 3 listed and they were all removed. We had one of the first child Covid deaths in the United States - Skylar Herbert. If her death isn't being counted, then how many others are not as well?

Elizabeth
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 10:04am

The point is not that many students will die from Covid, but that they will give it to elders who will die (WHY is this such a hard concept to understand?!). His statement that kids don't die from it is not even relevant to proper pandemic procedure. I get that it's redneck up north, but sometimes just following the letter of the law isn't enough. Had the school done their own research in addition, they could have ascertained that there are numerous respected experts who have opined about the prognosis of Covid marching on when people don't wear masks. Does someone actually have to say "we told you so?!" I have no words.

mw
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 10:51am

Even without deaths, we still don't know the longterm effects of Covid. There have been cases of lung scarring and reduced lung capacity in younger Covid patients but I guess he's okay with that, as long as those kids don't die?

Tam
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 10:54am

Thank you for sharing and for your courage in taking on a monstrous responsibility. May the Force be with you -

Anonymous
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 10:55am

Thank you for writing this. It gives us a perspective I have not heard before. I do not have children that are of school age, however, I can still appreciate the responsibility and the weight that falls on the shoulders of our state and local governments, school administrators, teachers and parents who have tough decisions to make. My best wishes, thoughts and prayers go out to every one of us during this difficult time.

Jonah212
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 11:11am

Interesting but did this Superintendent consider that one of the students could easily track the virus home and then pass it on and kill one of the kid's relatives or neighbors. I really don't get that impression from his essay.

Sue Duby
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 11:15am

Everyone is performing their very best in preventing virus infections. As with all contagious illnesses it is by natural selection which is not abnormal. The number of cases is mute. It’s only the death number that counts. Old folks like me have to protect ourselves whatever way we feel necessary. Our society is overly frightened to the point where we are even wiping out good bacteria which will eliminate our resistance. Calm down everyone and get back to school and open businesses.

mw
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 2:05pm

"Honestly, who are we kidding? Kindergartners are not going to do it. They are going to trade masks, use them to wipe up spills, and drag them through all kinds of things throughout the day."

I have a 3 year old who has no problem wearing a mask when we go out. I have a first grader who wears his mask all day at school and only takes it off to eat and drink. We've explained to our kids why mask wearing is important and we lead by example. This argument is absurd.

"It is my personal belief that we will experience a few shutdowns throughout the year."

Few is not zero. Sure there aren't many COVID deaths in people under 20 but how many of those kids are dealing with long-term health problems due to lung scarring or other issues cropping up with a COVID recovery? How many students have parents or grandparents that are at risk and would have potentially suffer devastating health consequences if their child brought COVID home? How many teachers are older or have underlying health issues?

Denise Jacob
Tue, 09/22/2020 - 9:36pm

I can understand the assumption that students, especially young ones, will not wear mask. But that is an untested assumption, not a fact. There are growing numbers of children wearing masks at school, including my grandchildren in kindergarten and third grade who have never complained once about wearing a mask all day, except when outside. We know masks reduce virus transmission so why employ expensive disinfecting machines and ignore this option? I would ask this superintendent to reconsider his views and perhaps talk with some educators in schools where masks are in use, if he really wants the best chance of keeping his school district open and his community safe.

PLombard
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 9:27am

You lost me with your description of kindergarteners and masks. I don’t appreciate ridiculous straw-man arguments.

Anonymous
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 1:15pm

Wow - it floors me that they are reopening. As others have pointed out, the issues are: kids’ infecting others in their families, and the documented (and yet-to-be-documented) long-term adverse health consequences that occur even in young people who had mild or no symptoms.

Other school districts are providing meals and social services in much safer ways than having kids attend school in person.

Schools need to stay closed until there is a widely-available vaccine. To do otherwise is flagrantly irresponsible.