Michigan Tech, Houghton County move to online learning amid COVID

Michigan Tech grad student Rashi Yadav works on a coronavirus test. The Upper Peninsula university has become the latest higher education institution to close down in-person learning.  (Michigan Tech courtesy photo)

Michigan Technological University has become the latest university to close down in-person learning, just days after K-12 classes in Houghton County flipped to remote learning as well.

Both the college and K-12 schools say they plan to return to in-person instruction Oct. 12.

Starting Wednesday, all lecture classes will be taught remotely, Tech president Rick Koubek wrote Sunday in an email to students.

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According to the university’s COVID dashboard, 56 students and staff have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 14 days. Nineteen members of one Greek house have tested positive, along with five members of one sports team, according to a state report of school and college outbreaks released Monday. The report did not name the team or the Greek house.

“With this shift, we ask supervisors to accommodate employees who are able to work from home or those impacted by local K-12 schools’ pause in in-person instruction,” Koubek wrote, reminding students to adhere to social-distancing protocols and continue to report through the Daily Symptom Monitoring Form.

On Thursday, presidents at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, told a gathering of Lansing business leaders that classes likely will remain virtually all online for another year. 

All K-12 schools in the Upper Peninsula county moved to online learning only on Monday after the health department deemed a surge in COVID-19 cases too steep, according to a message posted Thursday to parents on the Hancock Public School District website.

The district had asked parents to send their children to school last Friday “so we can provide them materials they will need to take home to keep learning.”

Houghton High School posted a similar message on its Facebook Thursday evening. 

“While we have successfully put a number of safety practices in place, public health officials have advised us to shut down for two weeks to help with not overloading the local medical system,” it read.

The decision follows a dramatic upswing in COVID-19 cases this month.

Since Sept. 1, Houghton has seen its countywide case count rise from 66 to 415, more than quintupling in four weeks. Houghton, which is the state’s 44th most populous county, with just over 36,000 people, had been ranked 61st in cases. By Monday it ranked 36th.

The western U.P., where Houghton is located, has suffered the most dramatic spike in cases in the state recently. The region borders Wisconsin, which is currenting experiencing its highest case counts since the pandemic struck the state.

On Saturday, the department reported its third death — an elderly, hospitalized person — in the five-county health department.

“We kind of knew this was going to happen,” Steve Patchin, Hancock’s superintendent, said of the move to online learning. 

Four students have tested positive in his district. Two were asymptomatic, and two had symptoms much like “a cold or sore throat,” he said.

Such decisions are difficult — for health officials, for school staff and for parents, he said. He said he has spent much of his time trying to help students and families understand the reasons for isolating positive cases and, now, for moving classes online.

“The [people] who are hardest hit are the kids,” he said. “They want to be in school. They want to learn. They’ve been gone for six months…. Kids are social. They learn about half of what they need from us, but the other half is from their peers — about life and emotions and how to manage them.”

Bridge data reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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