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.
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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