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Michigan school COVID outbreaks surge 47% in 2 weeks; some return to remote

April 23 update: In Ypsilanti, one bus driver’s COVID case closes school for 2,000 students

April 9 update: No new restrictions, but Michigan needs help amid COVID surge, Whitmer says

COVID cases continue to rise in Michigan’s classrooms, with school outbreaks jumping 23 percent in just the past week in a state that has been hit the hardest in the nation by the wave of the pandemic.

In the face of the latest surge, some Michigan schools are retreating to fully online learning in either the week before or after spring break, hoping the pause will slow the spread of the virus.

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The number of outbreaks tied to Michigan preschools and K-12 schools rose to 296, from 241 the previous week, according to data released Monday. Outbreaks have surged 23 percent in one week, and 47 percent over two weeks.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases linked to those outbreaks jumped 17 percent in one week, to 2,175, from 1,859.

Health officials define an outbreak as two or more cases connected to the same event or location, outside of a family home.

According to the report, there were new school outbreaks in 28 counties in the past week, including one outbreak involving 22 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff reported in high schools in Bay City Public Schools.

“Looking at our percent positivity, case numbers and hospitalizations, I am deeply concerned,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said in a statement. “That said, looking at our vaccination rates I am really hopeful. We are at a turning point in the pandemic.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered middle and high school buildings to close in November because of rising COVID cases, at a time when cases were lower than they are now.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services last week said the state had no plans to close schools again, at least partly because most teachers are now fully vaccinated.

However, some school districts are making the decision to return to fully remote learning on their own.

Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest school district in the state, will be returning to fully remote learning for two weeks after spring break, with students scheduled to return to classrooms April 19.

Students at Ypsilanti Community Schools were supposed to be back to class this week, following spring break, but classes will be fully remote until April 12 because of the rise of COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County.

In Oakland County, Troy School District and Hazel Park Schools both will stay out of classrooms an extra week.

On Monday, the Ingham County Health Department recommended, but did not require, schools in the county that includes Lansing to keep students in grades 6-12 out of classrooms until April 19. Most Ingham schools are on spring break this week.

The one-week pause on in-person learning for middle and high school students should be combined with rapid testing for students who traveled during spring break, the health department said in its statement.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many Ingham school districts would follow the health department’s recommendation.

The COVID-19 test positivity rate as a whole for the past week in Ingham County was 15.2 percent – the highest rate since April 2020.

Even as state health officials race to get vaccine shots in arms, Michigan is being pummeled by a third wave of the pandemic. Michigan currently has the highest test positivity rate and highest new case count per 100,000 residents in the nation.

As of Monday, the test positivity rate for the state as a whole over the past week was 15.9 percent.

The state’s goal during the pandemic is to keep the positivity rate at 3 percent or lower, which it has reached at times. A higher positivity rate indicates more community spread of the virus. 

Despite safety precautions in schools such as mandatory face masks and, in many districts, hybrid models in which students are only in classrooms a few days a week, schools have struggled with the same surge as the communities in which they are located.

Last week, several Metro Detroit superintendents held an online news conference warning that if COVID cases continued to rise, schools would struggle to stay open for the remainder of the school year, which ends in June.

Kent Intermediate School District has set up several remote, rapid testing spots around the county, following the advice of state health officials who have encouraged schools to offer rapid testing for any student who wants it when they return from spring break, similar to the rapid tests schools have been required to give athletes who are competing against other schools. 

Said Ingham Health Department’s Vail, “by keeping students home from school an extra week and using rapid testing to screen travelers, we could turn the tide in our favor.”

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