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Michigan schools still struggle with public disclosure of COVID cases

On Monday, Gibraltar School District Superintendent Amy Conway posted a coronavirus tally on her district’s website.

Conway then wrote a letter to parents in the 3,600-student district in southern Wayne County describing the information they could now view 24 hours a day — from the number of confirmed cases among students and staff members, to the number of people who are currently quarantined because they had close contact with an infected person. 

Later that day, Conway wrote separate letters to parents of students at the district’s middle and high schools, after both showed up on a state report of Michigan school buildings with current coronavirus outbreaks. A week earlier, she’d written to parents at Chapman Elementary explaining why the school was closing through Oct. 5 due to three coronavirus cases.

It’s a lot of extra work, but the sixth-year superintendent said real-time transparency is vital when families are scared about the dangers of a deadly pandemic.

“It’s important to be honest about what’s happening,” Conway told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday. “In the absence of information, people will make up things. I want to provide as much information as possible, so people don’t feel the need to go to social media.”

Gibraltar’s prompt updates are not the practice at all Michigan school districts. Among 46 schools named as having new or ongoing coronavirus outbreaks in a state report released Monday, just 17 disclosed those outbreaks prominently on their websites or school Facebook pages, according to a Bridge review of online and social media posts this week.

Nor can parents expect real-time alerts from local health departments, as a separate Bridge investigation makes clear. With the state now announcing school outbreaks only on a weekly basis, many parents can wait days or more than a week for information on viral spread at their schools

That may change soon. Last Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an order that requires Michigan schools to directly publish notification of coronavirus cases, starting Oct. 7. How much urgency she will require of schools or districts remains to be seen: her administration has yet to provide details. 

But an aggressive transparency order will be welcome news for parents. 

Until now, reliable updates have been spotty, with only some schools or local health departments providing real-time updates. Some schools say they only notify students and staff who had direct contact with an infected person, and not necessarily other school families or people in the surrounding community. 

And, as Bridge Michigan has discovered, learning the details of outbreaks through local health departments can be inconsistent, time-consuming and costly.

In late August, Bridge filed public records requests with 12 local health departments representing 26 rural and metropolitan counties across the state. We sought the names of schools in their region that had confirmed coronavirus outbreaks between July 27 and Aug. 27, and the number of people infected. 

Their responses underscore the need for greater public accountability to keep families and communities safe.

Some health departments released information within days. But others did not respond for weeks, including two agencies that provided responses last week. The Washtenaw County Health Department denied Bridge’s request, arguing it possessed no such records because it logged school outbreak data into a disease-tracking program that is run by the state, not the county. 

The City of Detroit health department, meanwhile, told Bridge it would take an estimated 19 hours of staff time to compile the list. And officials would not give up their records without a payment of more than $1,000, making it the only agency to request a fee. Even then, the city said, it might take another 75 days (until roughly mid-December) to provide answers. 

The health departments that provided data cited nine outbreaks involving 174 people at K-12 schools and colleges over that month. Among the largest was more than 100-cases at Central Michigan University and more than two-dozen cases tied to the Michigan State University football team.

Whitmer’s order last Friday goes beyond what is currently reported on school COVID outbreaks in one respect — it requires identifying schools with even a single COVID-19 case, and not just those with outbreaks (defined as two or more cases linked by a shared source). 

That difference is not insignificant. Marcus Cheatham, health officer for the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, told Bridge that “over half” of the 18 school districts in his three-county region of Clinton, Gratiot and Montcalm counties have at least one coronavirus case. But because the state identifies only schools with outbreaks, just two of the mid-Michigan districts appear on the state website – Alma and Carson City-Crystal Area Schools.

The Whitmer administration had faced criticism for initially declining to identify schools with COVID-19 outbreaks as students returned to K-12 schools and college campuses 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, then 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 the public is notified of an outbreak. 

State officials balked at being required to post infection information more frequently, saying the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and local health departments already have too many demands on their time during the pandemic. Requiring schools to disclose COVID infections may relieve pressure on public health offices. 

While schools work with local health departments to inform families of students who have had close contact with an infected person, schools are not currently required to inform the public at large of coronavirus outbreaks. 

Gibraltar is among several districts that are already quickly alerting the public to COVID infections. 

Marquette Area Schools in the Upper Peninsula also posts a COVID dashboard, and it sent a letter to parents Sept. 17 about new cases in the district.

“Today, we were notified of a second staff member testing positive for COVID-19,” Superintendent William Saunders wrote. “It was brought to our attention that several more staff members and a small number of students have been identified as close contacts. All close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days….”

Bronson Jr./Sr. High School, near the Indiana border south of Coldwater, disclosed COVID-19 cases on the school’s Facebook page Monday.

“We have been notified of an additional positive COVID-19 case at Bronson Jr/Sr High School,” the post read in part. “Once again, we are beginning the contact tracing and cleaning protocols and working closely with the Branch/St Joseph/Hillsdale Health Department to keep our students safe.

“The student who tested positive and those within close contact (defined as someone who has been within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more) will need to be quarantined for 14 days under the guidance of the Branch/St Joseph/Hillsdale Health Department.

Unity Christian High School, in Ottawa County, likewise maintains an updated  tally of cases. As of Tuesday, six students had tested positive, with five of them cleared to return to school; and 42 students were in quarantine out of an enrollment of about 600.

In Gibraltar, the district’s online dashboard on Thursday listed nine students and staff currently testing positive, and 35 students and staff in quarantine.

“The word ‘outbreak’ can mean something scary [to parents],” Conway told Bridge. “It’s important for families to know [what’s happening].”

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