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Michigan re-orders schools to disclose COVID cases after Supreme Court ruling

Michigan schools will still be required to publicly report coronavirus cases, even after the state Supreme Court struck down an executive order mandating the disclosure.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency order Tuesday mandating that schools publicly report all coronavirus cases in their schools within 24 hours of confirmation of a positive test.

The order requires local health departments to notify schools within 24 hours of learning of a probable or confirmed school-associated case of COVID-19. Upon notification, schools must disclose cases prominently on the school’s website.

The order also encourages schools to provide information about measures in place at the school to prevent transmission of COVID-19, as well as measures that individuals can take to prevent transmission. 

“Recent outbreaks throughout the country demonstrate that COVID-19 can spread quickly in the school setting,” Robert Gordon, director of MDHHS, said in a statement announcing the order. “Timely communication from schools to parents, guardians, students, teachers, staff and other persons affiliated with schools enables members of the school community to take measures to prevent spread of the virus.”

The order comes four days after a similar school reporting mandate by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was thrown into limbo when the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated all her executive orders after April 30.

Under Whitmer’s executive order, schools were required to begin disclosing coronavirus cases Monday. 

The new health department order goes into effect Oct. 12.

Some Michigan Republicans contend that health department orders about the coronavirus also could be voided by the ruling. 

But the latest order could come as a relief to parents, who currently have no guaranteed, real-time information on coronavirus cases in their community schools.

As of Oct. 1, there were 296 coronavirus cases that were tallied as part of school outbreaks, according to a state report released Monday. That figure doesn’t include individual COVID-19 cases that don’t meet the definition of an outbreak, which is two or more cases connected to a place and time outside of a household. The new health department rule requires schools to report all cases, not just infections that are part of an outbreak.

Schools are required to work with local health departments to contact and isolate students and staff who have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, but are not currently required to disclose cases to the community at large.

Whitmer faced criticism for initially declining to identify schools with COVID-19 outbreaks as students returned for the fall semester. Following reporting by Bridge Michigan and other news outlets, and a letter from a coalition of news and government transparency advocates, MDHHS began to list schools with outbreaks earlier in September, but only on a weekly basis. 

The coalition, known as the Michigan School-Related COVID Outbreak Transparency Coalition, which includes Bridge Michigan, BridgeDetroit and The Center for Michigan, among dozens of groups, pressed the state to notify families and their communities more immediately. 

Critics noted that weekly announcements can mean significant delays between the time an infection is first confirmed and when the public is notified of an outbreak. 

State officials balked at being required to post more real-time infection info, saying that health officials already have too many demands during the pandemic.

Whitmer instead is putting the onus on K-12 schools, ordering them to publish information on coronavirus cases.

Monday, the Whitmer administration moved to reinstate the state’s mask mandate through Oct. 30, through an order issued by the state health department. Officials said to expect more orders from the health department that mimicked Whitmer’s executive orders in the coming days.

Some schools aren’t waiting for a state order to take effect. As of Tuesday, Kent County school districts, including Grand Rapids Public Schools, are reporting the number of cases and number of students and staff in isolation on the website of the Kent Intermediate School District.

“Transparency with positive cases will keep our communities safer,” Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in Kent County, wrote on Twitter when the Kent COVID tracker was posted. 

“We need to take the stigma away from COVID, and encourage everyone to get tested if displaying symptoms.”

Some individual school districts around the state, including Gibraltar School District in Wayne County and Marquette Area Schools in the Upper Peninsula, began posting real-time coronavirus data on their websites last week.

 

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