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COVID school outbreaks skyrocket; more Michigan schools close

At least 34 Michigan school districts have closed for the entire holiday week, as the pandemic continues to take a toll on education (Shutterstock)

Nearly three dozen Michigan school districts have shuttered classrooms early in what was already a short holiday week, in hopes that a longer Thanksgiving break will tamp down COVID outbreaks and relieve staff shortages.

The closures come as COVID-19 outbreaks and infections in Michigan schools rise sharply. There were 140 new outbreaks in the week ending Nov. 18, according to data released Monday by Michigan officials, up 61 percent from the previous week. The number of positive cases linked to those new outbreaks hit 891, a 71 percent jump.

New and ongoing COVID-19 cases linked to school outbreaks now total 7,963. That’s a sliver (0.5 percent) of the state’s more than 1.4 million public K-12 students, but each student who tests positive can cause multiple classmates to quarantine.

“At our high school alone, we’ve had to quarantine 33.9 percent of our kids (at some point) since the beginning of the school year,” said John Fattal, superintendent of Corunna Public Schools in Shiawassee County. “At every other building, it’s above 25 percent.”

Corunna is one of at least 34 Michigan school districts (out of 537) that decided to close all of Thanksgiving week. In most districts, the closures are treated like snow days, instead of virtual learning days at home. That’s prompted some administrators to worry about whether they will meet the 180-day instruction requirement for full state funding. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District and Ann Arbor Public Schools, two of the largest districts in the state, both announced schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday, as did 254-student Wolverine Community Schools in Cheboygan County. 

All had expected to be open those days, but closed because of high COVID-19 infections and quarantines, staff shortages or both. (The state doesn’t track whether staff-related closures stem from illnesses related to COVID or the national employee shortage.)

In Detroit, the district told families the days off would be used to sanitize classrooms. Ann Arbor school officials said the extra days were to stop transmission of the virus in classrooms and give those who are infected time to recover.

In Corunna, Fattal said students, families and staff “needed a break. With the staffing issues we’re having in every department, we were hanging on by a thread.”

Statewide, most schools that are closed this week are slated to reopen next Monday, Nov. 29. By then, all the students and staff now in quarantine in Corunna will be able to return to school, providing some relief, Fattal said.

With Michigan leading the nation in COVID case rates, though, it’s uncertain whether the long breaks will allow schools to stay open in the long run.

“The sad part is, I’m still trying to figure out what the end game is,” Fattal said. “That’s really the tough thing for us to determine. How do we balance kids being out of school versus the (in-school potential exposure to) illness?

“Our community understands what (schools) are going through,” Fattal said. “They don’t all agree, but they understand. And at this point, I’ll take that.”

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