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Fewer masks, more illness, mass confusion as Michigan schools face omicron

classroom
Michigan schools are scrambling to find ways to keep kids in classrooms, choosing between “bad options.” (Shutterstock)

Jan. 13: Beyond code red: Michigan hospitals wilt under double wave of COVID cases
Jan. 11: School COVID policies remain dominant Michigan education issue in 2022
Jan. 10 COVID student testing rates fall far short of goals in Detroit
Jan. 6: Michigan superintendent: With schools closing, let’s address teacher shortages

Confusion and frustration are mounting in Michigan schools, as districts scramble to keep classrooms open amidst the most contagious COVID-19 variant since the pandemic began.

Schools are navigating ever-shifting quarantine policies, face-mask mandates that have expired in some places while being implemented elsewhere, all while struggling to hang onto teachers and bus drivers able to stay healthy.

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“There’s just no right or wrong answer,” Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance for Education, a Michigan school advocacy organization, said of evolving school policies to fight COVID. 

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“Everyone wants kids in class, to get the lessons they need and the support they deserve,” he said. “The frustration is finding the right balance, and everyone is struggling to find that.”

Some districts have tiptoed toward a hopefully, temporary return to online learning following the holiday break, for what health officials anticipate will be a quick peak of the omicron surge. In Detroit Public Schools Community District, a one-week delay has already been extended for another seven days, through Jan. 14.

About 95,000 (6 percent) of Michigan’s public school students missed at least one day of in-person school this week because of COVID-related closures.

Ann Arbor Public Schools canceled classes Monday and Tuesday, and will switch to fully remote learning Wednesday through at least Friday.

“This modification in the schedule for a return from winter break will allow time for critical steps,” including monitoring case data and staff health during the omicron surge, Superintendent Jeanice Swift wrote parents in the 17,000-student district.

Phil Jankowski, superintendent of Anchor Bay School District, which straddles the Macomb and St. Clair county line, said classes are open for now. But he said colleagues in other districts are preparing to move to fully remote learning if COVID continues to spread through their staff.

At the current rate of infection spread, “by the middle of next week, we wouldn’t be able to continue” to keep schools open, Jankowski said.

The test positivity rate at the district’s voluntary COVID test site soared from 1 percent this fall to 30 percent the week after Christmas, an indication of uncontrolled community spread.

“It’s no longer a question of masked versus unmasked,” Jankowski said, “the decision is can you stay in (classrooms) or not.”

Anchor Bay students were required to wear masks for the first time this week, after the St. Clair Health Department Health Department issued a mask mandate Dec. 29 for all K-12 students and staff in county schools. The department hadn’t issued a mandate in the fall when about a dozen local health departments issued school mask mandates. The mandate lasts through Jan. 28.

“Given the looming threat of the Omicron variant on top of the already high case rates within the community, it is prudent to take pre-emptive action now to ensure in-person learning continues within our schools,” Dr. Annette Mercatante, medical health officer in St. Clair, said in a statement announcing the mandate.

At the same time St. Clair added a mask requirement, four other county health departments allowed their school mask mandates to expire despite COVID test positivity rates that rival the highest measured in the now 22-month pandemic. Mask mandates ended over the holidays in Kent, Genesee, Kalamazoo and Ottawa counties. 

Students in those counties are still being urged to wear masks, but in other Michigan school districts where masks are optional very few students wear face coverings.

Some schools in counties where health department mandates were dropped continue to require masks. In Ottawa and Kent counties, for example, about half the school districts continue to mandate masks, under district-set policies, while the rest are now mask-optional, according to officials in those two counties.

The net effect of the changing mask mandates: 100,000 fewer Michigan traditional public school students are required to wear masks (667,000), while the highly contagious variant is spreading, than in early December (766,000), according to state data.

Overall, about 53 percent of Michigan traditional public school students now attend schools where facial coverings are required, down from 62 percent in the fall.

Quarantine guidelines are also vexing some school leaders.  

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services followed a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to lower the isolation period after a positive COVID-19 test from 10 days to five days for the general public. But state health officials kept the isolation period at 10 days for school employees and students.

For example, current policies would allow someone working at McDonald’s to return to work five days after testing positive if they at that point test negative. But a second-grade teacher — or a second-grader for that matter — would have to wait 10 days to return to class.

That decision has perplexed school leaders as well as some local health officials.

“It adds in a whole other layer of confusion, because people don’t know which rules to follow,” said Anne Barna, spokesperson for the Barry-Eaton Health Department. “The more people are confused, the more they give up and don’t try at all.”

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Several school districts in Barry and Eaton counties have switched to the five-day quarantine standard, Barna said, while others are continuing a 10-day quarantine for now.

Rockford Interim Superintendent Korie Wilson-Crawford said the double-standard quarantine policy will make it tough for schools to stay open while the omicron variant is spreading. “It’s causing confusion, and is going to cause a staffing problem in our school,” she said. “It will unfairly disadvantage our schools at a time that it’s critical for our kids.”

Anchor Bay is already facing a staffing issue. Through the fall, the district averaged about one staff member a day with COVID, said Superintendent Jankowski. On Monday, there were 30.

Decreasing the quarantine period from 10 days to five days would help keep schools open, Jankowski said.

“The five-day thing gives us a fighting chance, more than 10,” Jankowski said. “I understand nobody knows (the best solution). It’s not like we’re looking at all these positive options. I’m looking at which is the least bad option.”

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