How a few coronavirus cases ended classes at a rural Michigan school

Superintendent Jeff Wright closed Pewamo-Westphalia Middle/High School after just 10 days after a coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy photo from Jeff Wright)

Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools Superintendent Jeff Wright said he can still hear the sounds of students bustling back into the farm community’s middle/high school Aug. 24. 

From his office in a district that straddles Ionia and Clinton counties, Wright could hear laughing as students reconnected with friends and teachers they hadn’t seen in more than five months, since Michigan’s school buildings were shuttered in March to try to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The school reopened for the new school year offering full-time, face-to-face instruction, along with extensive safety measures. Students and staff wore face masks and there were hand-sanitizer stations in the hallways. Teachers stayed behind plexiglass partitions in classrooms. Students got a squirt of hand sanitizer as they entered buses to come and go from school, and bus windows were open to keep air flowing.


Despite those measures, Wright sat at his desk on Sept. 8 recording a phone message to parents, telling them that the school building was closing for now and moving online. After just 10 days of school, there were five students (now six) who had tested positive for the coronavirus, including one who had been hospitalized. Twenty percent of the students in middle and high school were in quarantine because of close contact with the infected students.

“It was a devastatingly painful [decision],” Wright told Bridge Michigan. “There was a lot of shock in the community, a lot of anger.”

Pewamo-Westphalia’s experience – as one of the first school districts to close (at least temporarily) after returning to in-person instruction – is both a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of education during a pandemic, and what Wright hopes is the first chapter in a playbook for other districts that he predicts are likely to face the same decisions in the coming months.

“We’re in uncharted territory – there’s no guide for this,” Wright said. “We’re not going to be the only district facing this decision.”

In Michigan, 86 percent of school districts and charters started the school year offering at least an option of face-to-face instruction for some of the school week, according to a Michigan State University analysis of state-mandated reopening plans; 16 percent offered only full-time, in-person instruction, without an option of homebound learning.

Pewamo-Westphalia was among those that offered full-time, in-class instruction, plus an option for online learning for families who desired it. Just 5 percent of the roughly 640 students in the district chose the online option, Wright said.

Statewide, there were at least 11 new or ongoing coronavirus outbreaks at K-12 schools as of Sept. 10, according to data released Monday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. It’s the first time state health officials have identified schools with outbreaks following efforts by Bridge and other media outlets for public access to this information. 

Pewamo-Westphalia, though, wasn’t included in the state school outbreak list. An explanation for the district’s absence was not immediately available from MDHHS. State officials acknowledge the state tally is likely an undercount of outbreaks in the state.

Pewamo-Westphalia’s middle/high school closed Sept. 9, and will continue with online-only learning through at least Sept. 21. (The district’s elementary school, which has had no confirmed coronavirus cases, remains open.)

Wright told Bridge he felt he had no choice but to close the school temporarily, as coronavirus cases increased in the community.

The COVID-19 test positivity rate in Clinton County was 1.6 percent on Aug. 23, the day before students returned to classrooms, Wright said. By Sept. 3, it was 5.2 percent; two days later, it was 6.3 percent. The next day, it was 6.9 percent.

State health officials have used 3 percent positivity rate as a threshold for concern about community spread.

Between Sept. 1-11, there were 11 new confirmed coronavirus cases among residents who live within the boundaries of the Pewamo-Westphalia school district, according to the superintendent – a figure that doesn’t seem high until you realize how rural the district is. There are no traffic signals in the entire school district, according to Wright. Outside his office window is a dairy farm.

Wright learned of the first coronavirus case among students on Aug. 30, six days after the start of school. Five students were infected as of Sept. 11, and about 100 of the 490 students in the middle/high school were at home in quarantine because of close contact with a COVID-positive classmate. A sixth student tested positive over the weekend.

“We all know that face-to-face instruction is best for our kids,” Wright said. “We get to work together, and we can see when kids are struggling or need to be challenged. But looking at those numbers, we needed to suspend our face-to-face instruction.”

Wright said he’s not sure of anything he’d do differently, but he’s sure he’s made mistakes. “I don’t know there's a right way to go about things now,” he said, “given the limits of distancing [in schools]. We know we had to try this and we’d  be building the airplane while flying it in the dark without a blueprint.”

Wright said he’s learned several lessons about dealing with coronavirus in schools from the district’s ordeal, including that:

  • Contact tracing is critical and should be done as soon as possible to try to limit spread. After positive cases were confirmed, school officials scrambled to find a six-foot board to measure in every direction from an infected student’s desk to see who was in close contact. Health officials consider close contact to be 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person. “We didn’t have any training on contact tracing,” Wright said. “We had to create forms and messages to families.”

  • Every teacher should have a seating chart and make students sit in their assigned desks. Pewamo-Westphalia didn’t have assigned seating in middle and high school until this year – an addition made to help with contact-tracing if it became necessary.
  • Not only do teachers have seating charts, but students are arranged alphabetically. That way, as students moved from class to class, they tend to sit near the same group of classmates, cutting down on the number of students who must be quarantined.
  • Still, expect to be surprised by the number of students who will be affected by one positive COVID test. Wright said the average number of students told to quarantine in their homes because of contact with an infected classmate was 25. “I’m hoping people understand and see that there are far greater implications than one student testing positive,” Wright said.
  • Pewamo-Westphalia examined surveillance camera footage to see who was sitting next to infected students in the cafeteria, or walking with them in hallways. Those students were told to quarantine, also.
  • Take it seriously, no matter what you hear about the low health risk of the coronavirus for young people. “A mom had to stay in the ICU with their daughter for six days,” Wright said. “That hits you upside the head.”
  • Work with your local health department to help make decisions – Wright said the Central Michigan District Health Department has worked hand-in-hand with him.
  • Lastly, don’t let your fondness for the rhythms of school life get in the way of making tough decisions to protect students. “I love having students in school,” Wright said. “I love hearing the band practice outside my window. I love seeing students practice physics experiments outside my window.” 

The decision to close the school received pushback from some parents when they received recorded messages about the closure Sept. 8, Wright said.  

“Wow! Glad to see you caved so easily. Only 9 days and you’ve already failed us,” one person posted on the district’s Facebook page.  

Wright said he understands why people would have been upset when they received the recorded phone message from him announcing students couldn't return to school for two weeks.

“To get a message like that out of the blue … there was disappointment, shock, anger, sorrow,” Wright acknowledged. “But we had to do all we could to at least mitigate the spread of the virus.”

“The hard part of this is there’s not a playbook. We’re put in a position where we have to react.”

His biggest regret: Divisions over whether schools should remain open are widening because of politics. Polling reveals Republicans are more inclined to believe schools are safe to reopen than are Democrats. “The more we make it a political battle instead of what is best for our kids, then we choose sides,” Wright said.

“I hope no other school system has to go through this. But based on our track record, other schools are going to face what we’ve faced.”

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middle of the mit
Mon, 09/14/2020 - 11:05pm

Open them up. Take away any power the Governor has. At the least, Publicans won't be able to use it to take over dem cities, poison the residents..........oh wait.......that law is referendum proof.

Either way......give the whiners what they want, then if the kiddies have future health problems? Conservatives can get rid of the ACA and pre-existing conditions.....while still being for them, but not protecting them......and we can back to normal! Blaming libs like me for the worlds problems!

Michael Caputo, the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services, accused career government scientists of “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and warned that left-wing hit squads were preparing for armed insurrection after the election, the New York Times reports.

“You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going.”

More: “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin. The drills that you’ve seen are nothing… If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

Who is being vitriolic again?


Both sides that!!

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 8:51am

And HOW many of thses kids parents when to one of trumps hate rallies????

Diane Deacon
Tue, 09/15/2020 - 9:21am

A well-written story. I think this illustrates quite well the very difficult dilemma that school officials find themselves in as they try to keep students, staff and community members safe. I feel for the agonizing position that Mr. Wright was in, and I hope the negative comments were minimum. Good work, reporter. We need more human perspectives from a local level.

In sum
Tue, 09/15/2020 - 9:51am

“A mom had to stay in the ICU with their daughter for six days,” Wright said. “That hits you upside the head.”

Jean Stiehl
Tue, 09/15/2020 - 9:54am

Teachers should move class to class rather than students. Keep students in same desk, room, even for lunch . Definately need to change and adapt as school resumes, to learn what works. It may not have been contracted at school, possibly extra curricular activities since the elementary had no outbreak. Still so much to learn about this China plague.

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 3:50pm

A nice idea but kids don't have the same classes.

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 4:59pm

This definitely would be ideal, and this is pretty much what is happening in most of the elementary schools - at least in my area. But unfortunately it's nearly impossible to do with the older kids because they have electives and not all the kids take the same classes. There is intermixing between grades (for example, when I was in high school some of my classes had kids from other grades in them) and not all kids in the same grade are at the same level of classes - another example some kids might be in honor classes or accelerated classes. But your thinking is going down the right path - unfortunately just hard to implement.

Thu, 09/17/2020 - 1:07pm

Yeah, start with the real name COVID-19.

First Amendment
Mon, 09/28/2020 - 11:55am

But then we wouldn't know the writer's ignorant bias. Calling it the "China plague" reveals a lot.

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 10:09am

All those special measures and then the students sit where they want in the cafeteria?

Tools Dull
Tue, 09/15/2020 - 10:11am

Did you see the latest political rallies? There is no pandemic. LMAO

George Hagenauer
Tue, 09/15/2020 - 10:17am

An interesting problem for rural schools is limited internet access since there is little financial incentive to wire or deliver services to those areas . As a result there are far fewer options for delivering education.

Tue, 09/15/2020 - 10:49am

School officials need not claim they were helpless or had no blue print for opening school, they have the CDC and the State Health Department and that thing sitting between their shoulders! For what they are being paid and the money the school is getting per student they need to face the enemy head on and stop whining and pointing fingers, or else resign. Maybe the school needs to hire a couple retired D.I's to whip the school into shape, because discipline is essential, and I bet the school lacked it!

Thu, 09/17/2020 - 1:14pm

Then there's Trump who dismisses what the CDC says under oath and reconfirms after Trump briefings, twitter storms. We can't plan anything with a president that wants to blow everything up like healthcare, safety, global trade, race relations, etc. Sure blame everything on the state. What's a D.I., something like the vigilantes policing our streets that Trump encourages?

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 4:47pm

Don't feed the trolls!

No plans, Know ...
Tue, 09/15/2020 - 11:03am

Sad so many parents are having their school plans abruptly disrupted because of poor planning and understanding, but wonder how their plans would be disrupted when family members and school staff are abruptly hospitalized, intubated, or dead once infected. Imagine those inconveniences, if you don't already have firsthand experience. Most people don't have those experiences because of prudent lockdowns and months of safety measures. Sadly those early lessons are not easily transferable to all. You have to go through it yourself or with loved ones to truly understand.

Wed, 09/16/2020 - 9:24am

My kids are beyond school age, but I still think like a parent mine I would insist they bathe upon returning from school, clothes right in wash machine and turned on immediately, it would become the new normal!!