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COVID outbreaks jump 20 percent in Michigan schools. More closures ahead?

empty classroom
With COVID cases rising, school leaders raise the specter of a return to remote learning. (Bridge file photo)

April 13 update: Michigan at 'record high' for COVID-19 hospitalizations of children

April 12 update: Whitmer pleads for more COVID compliance. So far, Michigan isn’t listening

Outbreaks of the coronavirus jumped 20 percent in one week in Michigan schools, and officials worry about whether classrooms can stay open if the surge continues.

Several superintendents in metro Detroit said they worry there could be more outbreaks after students return from spring break, which in Michigan schools is staggered over several weeks in March and April.

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Officials urged students and families to not let their guard down, warning that in-person learning is again at risk.

“It feels like you’re walking on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon and you don’t want to take the wrong step,” said George Heitsch, interim superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools. “You worry about it every day.”

As of March 25, there were 241 new or ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks tied to K-12 schools and preschools, according to data released by the state Monday. The previous week, there were 201.

The number of confirmed cases among students and staff tied to those outbreaks jumped 16 percent, from 1,599 to 1,859.

By comparison, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered middle and high schools to go fully remote for three weeks in November, there were 777 cases tied to school outbreaks.

Last week, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said there were no plans for another statewide school building closure order.

On Monday, Whitmer told Bridge Michigan she didn’t anticipate more restrictions in the state, while acknowledging the importance of maintaining vigilance. 

“You look at a map and you know that it’s young people that are spreading it right now in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “We just can’t drop all of these efforts to keep people safe right now.”

But some school districts have closed buildings on their own because of outbreaks.

“One of our greatest fears is the continuing spread of COVID in the community could force us to (go back to fully remote),” said Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown School District in Wayne County.

“That’s the potential path we’re on if these trends continue,” Greathead said. “It’s critical that we maintain vigilance, because we are very much still in the midst of a global pandemic.”

As of Monday, Michigan has the highest coronavirus positive test rate in the country, as 12 percent of the past week’s tests were positive, including 15.6 percent of those reported Sunday.

Michigan has the second-highest rate of new cases, trailing only New Jersey, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis of data compiled daily by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The surge has hospitalized 2,300 people in Michigan as of Monday, up from 1,940 on Friday. In the past three weeks, infections among 10 to 19-year-olds have jumped 117 percent, surpassed only by their parents’ demographic (40 to 49 year-olds), which rose 117 percent.

The coronavirus surge comes after parent groups, high school sports teams and GOP leaders urged Whitmer to pressure schools to reopen, saying classrooms are comparatively safe from the coronavirus.

In January, Whitmer asked all schools to offer an in-person learning option by March 1, a deadline 97 percent of traditional public school districts met.

Despite mitigation efforts, such as mandatory face masks and social distancing, schools often experience outbreaks increase when cases rise in their communities, said Amy Conway, superintendent of Gibraltar Public Schools in Wayne County. Keeping classrooms open through the end of the school year depends on blunting the rapid rise of COVID cases in the neighborhoods surrounding schools.

“Having in-person school is extremely important to our students and community,” Conway said. “Everyone has been working so hard (to keep classrooms open).. With the higher community spread, we need everyone to pitch in to stay masked so we can have school.”

Gary Niehaus, superintendent at Grosse Pointe Public School System,  begged students and parents to be vigilant before students return to the district next week from spring break.

“People have to help us and make sure they come back healthy so we can have those end-of-year (events),” Niehaus said. “We’re talking about graduation and prom and senior celebrations.

“It’s very important to understand what we have to do to get through this together.”

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