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A rural Michigan district has 15 COVID cases, one death, and few answers

Carson City-Crystal Area Schools in Montcalm County was a month into face-to-face instruction this semester when officials learned of the first coronavirus case connected to the district. A staff member contacted the district last week to say she had tested positive.

One week later, the number of COVID-19 cases in this rural district of less than 900 students had jumped to 15, a 53-year-old teaching assistant was dead, and students were back to learning at home.

The rapid spread — and the death of a woman described by a county health official as otherwise healthy — is a sobering example of the difficulty schools face in trying to fend off a deadly virus that can spread just by breathing.

Carson City-Crystal has done a great job (in taking health precautions for COVID-19),” said Marcus Cheatham, health officer for the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, which covers Montcalm, Gratiot and Clinton counties. “They’ve done everything we could have wished.

“The lesson here is that even when you do your best, this disease can get out of control and it can kill people,” Cheatham said.

“The lesson here is that even when you do your best, this disease can get out of control and it can kill people.” — Marcus Cheatham, Mid-Michigan District Health Department

Cheatham confirmed that the staff member died from coronavirus last week. He did not release the woman’s name, but media reports identified her as Michelle Lynn McCrackin, a mother of five from Carson City. 

According to her obituary, McCrackin was a paraprofessional  at Carson City-Crystal Area Schools who assisted classroom teachers by working with students to improve reading and math skills. She was also the local teacher union president. 

The McCrackin family did not immediately respond to a request for comment passed to them through the Lux and Schnepp Funeral Home in Carson City on Tuesday.

Carson City-Crystal reopened schools for the fall semester on Aug. 24. The majority of students returned to classrooms for the first time since mid-March, when Michigan’s public and private schools were shuttered to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

About a quarter of the district’s students chose to continue with homebound learning, similar to how students finished the 2019-20 school year, Supt. John Sattler told a community newspaper, the Daily News, last week.

Sattler did not return a request from Bridge Michigan for comment Tuesday.

On Sept. 22, the staffer told the district she had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Cheatham of the health department. One day later, three more staff members and a student tested positive, and the school district closed its buildings and switched to fully remote learning through at least Oct. 4.

McCrackin died three days after her diagnosis.

Cheatham said there are currently no hospitalizations or other deaths connected to the outbreak among students and staff in the district. He said it’s unclear whether the woman contracted the virus through her interactions at the school, or if others contracted COVID-19 from her.

Cheatham said that while connections between the cases are not clear, he said he believes there are enough positive cases to conclude there is “community spread” in the school district.

By Tuesday afternoon, the count of confirmed coronavirus cases among students and staff at Carson City-Crystal was 15. “Don’t hold me to that,” Cheatham told Bridge Michigan in an interview. 

“By the time you print it, it will be wrong. This is changing by the hour.”

Until now, Montcalm County had not witnessed a large increase in cases in recent weeks. The past couple weeks, the seven-day average of new cases was three or four. That could be changing — there were 11 new cases reported in this county of 63,000 on Monday alone, and another 13 Tuesday.

“My world is on fire,” Cheatham said. “It feels like we’re starting to lose our grip on what’s going on, because there are so many outbreaks in so many parts of the community.”

Cheatham said the public needs to understand that just a handful of cases can bring a school district to its knees. One student who tests positive can send a 30-person classroom into quarantine for two weeks; one classroom teacher may come into close contact with numerous other teachers, forcing them all to stay home.

McCrackin’s job, for example, took her into multiple classrooms, working with numerous students at different grade levels.

The countywide career center for technical education has also closed for in-person instruction for now, Cheatham said, because some Carson City-Crystal students attend the center.

“There are probably hundreds of students quarantined” in the district, Cheatham said. “They have no staff or students to fill their classrooms. And then you have secondary spread to family members.”

Across Michigan, there were 46 K-12 schools with new or ongoing coronavirus outbreaks as of last Thursday, according to a state report released Monday. But Cheatham said those reports are a significant undercount of schools impacted by the virus.

He said that “well over half” of school districts in his three-county health district have coronavirus cases and had to quarantine students who had close contact with infected people. The state report only includes schools with “outbreaks,” which are defined as two or more cases connected in time and place to the same source of infection. If one student tests positive and a whole classroom is quarantined at home for a week, that school is not disclosed in the state report.

That may soon change for K-12 schools. On Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an order that requires Michigan schools to directly publish notification of coronavirus cases, starting Oct. 7. Details of where that information will be published, and how often, have not yet been released. As written, the order applies to all confirmed coronavirus cases, not just those defined as outbreaks.

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