Michigan schools scramble to plan for a potential coronavirus outbreak

empty classroom

While health officials note there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Michigan, schools are putting together plans to keep students and staff safe. (Shutterstock image)

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Michigan schools are scrambling to build plans for what to do if a student or community member is diagnosed with the potentially deadly new coronavirus.

School districts around the state are meeting with county health departments and preparing protocols that address everything from potential school closures to continuing school through online services if the outbreak were to reach Michigan. 

There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Michigan, though state health officials said recently that hundreds of people were being monitored.  

One district that already has taken action is Novi Community School District in Oakland County, which has a large enrollment of students with family connections to China, Japan and South Korea, three countries with large coronavirus outbreaks.

In late January, Novi instituted a policy that students returning from trips anywhere overseas must stay out of school for two weeks, said Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews. So far, one student who returned to Michigan from a trip to China was kept out of school for two weeks, but has since returned to class, Matthews said.

Coronavirus cases now top 80,000 worldwide, with 2,666 confirmed deaths in China, and 34 in other countries, according to a World Health Organization update Thursday. The virus, which appears to have originated in China, has spread to 33 countries, including the United States.In China, schools nationwide have been closed since late January in an effort to stop the spread of the virus, which is passed like the common cold and flu. Japan announced Thursday that all that nation’s schools would be closed through late March to try to halt the spread of the virus. 

This week, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the U.S. Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that if the coronavirus spreads in the United States, schools should be prepared to close for a long time.

Messonier said she had contacted her own local school superintendent to ask about preparations, and encouraged other parents to do the same.

“I’ve received four or five calls from parents, asking about our plan,” Novi’s Matthews said. “It’s a topic among superintendents. No one knows the right answer, so we’re all casting about to figure out how to be prepared without spreading panic.”

Dearborn Public Schools and Detroit Public Schools Community District told Bridge Magazine the districts are developing coronavirus protocols they hope to release publicly in the coming days. 

Likewise, Kent Intermediate School District and Oakland Schools Intermediate School District officials said they are working with their county health departments to build plans that they will share with school districts in their counties.

A decision to close schools is left up to individual school districts, according to Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. Schools are allowed to close for a variety of reasons, from the snow days that many Michigan schools had this week, to public health issues.


Coronavirus cases, which originated in Wuhan, China, now top 80,000 worldwide, with 2,666 confirmed deaths in China, and 34 in other countries, (Shutterstock image)

School officials contacted by Bridge on Thursday said there had not been a determination as to whether they would shut down if a student is diagnosed with coronavirus.

“We are still in the early stages” of developing a plan,” said Washtenaw ISD spokeswoman Ashley Kryscynski. “We are working with the Washtenaw Health Department. They are reassuring us there are no confirmed or suspected cases in our community and our risk remains low.”

Former State Superintendent Tom Watkins, who travels and works in China frequently, said most American schools are not adequately prepared academically to continue teaching through a long closure. 

Many schools have some form of online communication service between teachers and students. But whether those systems are robust enough to continue classes for weeks at a time varies by district, Watkins said.

“There are some [districts] that could do more than others, but the children with greater needs would certainly suffer because of the issues of connectivity, and not having access to Internet,” Watkins said.

“Also for some children, the meals they get at school are the only meals they get during a day,” Watkins said.

Kent County Health Department spokesman Steve Kelso said his office is currently only providing general information to school districts that is similar to the advice they give every flu season, such as the need for people to wash their hands frequently.

“This virus is so new, we don’t know how long it lives on a surface [or[ what the infection rate is,” Kelso said. “We give them the simple guidance from the CDC .”

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Rob Pollard
Fri, 02/28/2020 - 9:08am

The US has 40,000 death from flu annually. So far this flu season, we have had 105 confirmed pediatric deaths -- which is typical, as it usually ends up around 150. With all that, we don't even consider for a moment closing schools state or nationwide for flu; heck, millions of people can't be even bothered or convinced to get a flu shot, which takes just a few minutes and costs basically nothing!

So now, for a virus that has a 0% mortality rate for kids under 10, and only really starts to get different than flu for those above 60, we're going to have some people beating the drums to shut down schools, plays, events, etc?

Japan (stupidly) shut down their schools because Abe screwed up the initial response (see the horrible protocols for that cruise ship) and no wants to be seen as "doing something" ahead of the Olympics. Panicked, self-interested "leadership" is not the way to go.

Schools need to be prepared; Novi's policy, for example, seems good. But if things need to be kept in perspective and all costs need to be considered.

Fri, 02/28/2020 - 9:25am

Well at least someone else in the public has the same thoughts that I do. Good to know since listening to the news you would think the Spanish flu of 1919 had reappeared.

Overly Cautious
Fri, 02/28/2020 - 1:58pm

You must not have a family member with stage 4 cancer who's immune system is shot. You must not have to be extremely careful so you don't carry any diseases, for if there is an increased risk you can't visit that loved one. How lucky for you. Do not talk about costs to me.

Sat, 02/29/2020 - 5:38pm

Such ignorant comments. Children may or may not die, but they can spread the virus to others, including adults. That said, there are many children and adults who are vulnerable. The worst part is that our incompetent government doesn't even have sufficient testing kits to see who has the virus. This has been so badly handled and now probably many people are infected who have never left the country. This will be a horrible pandemic maybe far worse than the one in 1919 where 50 million people died. The global economic consequences will make the crash of 1929 look like a small recession.

People have no idea because they listen to politicians, not scientists who have been muzzled because of the stock market collapse.


Rob Pollard
Sun, 03/01/2020 - 10:17pm

"Children may or may not die..." kind of a big difference between the teo, don't ypu think?

The feds have definitely been pathetically negligent in testing (there are surely hundreds of cases already in the US) and Trump's bloviating has bern embarrassing, but South Korea hasn't been negligent and has tested close to 100,00 people, finding 4200 total cases and...17 deaths.

Again, we had 20 *pediatric* deaths of the regular flu last week. I missed the panic about that.

So quite aways to go until we get to "far worse" than 50,000,000 people dead from Covid-19.
Just because Trump, Mulvaney etc are extremely dismissive about this doesn't mean going to the other extreme is better.

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 1:43pm

Most children will not die from Covid-19, unless they have underlying health issues. All children can potentially be carriers of the virus and increase the spread of it to more vulnerable populations.

"Again, we had 20 *pediatric* deaths of the regular flu last week. I missed the panic about that." All you can do is advise people to get vaccinated, for "regular" flu. Unfortunately, Covid-19 doesn't have a vaccine yet. That means the problem is compounded because a large part of the population is more vulnerable. In fact, we have seen that the virus can strike at many first-responders who are normally vaccinated.

Did Trump Fire the US Pandemic Response Team? YES

Did U.S. President Donald Trump cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)?
What's True
The Trump administration's proposed 2021 budget includes cuts to the CDC's activities related to chronic disease.
What's False
Congress hasn't approved the budget, so CDC funding in 2021 remains unclear.

Trump Administration Says Obamacare Lawsuit Can Wait Until After the Election The Department of Justice told the Supreme Court that the case did not represent an “emergency” that would require a speedy ruling.

Makes you wonder why people still have faith in Trump, with such misplaced priorities.

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 10:20am

I certainly hope that ALL school districts had plans in place for what to do in the event of a flu (or other) epidemic in the event their county or state Health Department requests a cancellation of school either across an entire community or building by building. Those plans should both exist and be updated annually along with the other "emergency response" plans such as severe weather alerts, fire or chemical spill evacuation, and criminal intrusion during school hours.

A school district's epidemic response plans should obviously form the basis of plans to respond to an outbreak in Michigan of Covid-2019. It bothers me that none of the school officials Bridge contacted said so frankly. What are we paying all those building and school district administrators for, anyway?