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Teachers: Michigan must improve transparency on COVID outbreaks at schools

Michigan’s largest teachers union is demanding more transparency from districts about COVID-19 cases, amid confusion and frustration about state health laws that err on the side of privacy even amid a pandemic.

Last week, Michigan acknowledged at least 14 COVID-19 outbreaks at state schools and universities, but state and local state health officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have resisted calls to release details.

Instead, public health departments have told Bridge they are working with school districts to notify those who have been in direct contact with confirmed cases. That’s because there’s no statewide requirement for broader notifications of cases at schools with outbreaks, giving districts discretion on whether to inform pupils or parents. 

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Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, told Bridge on Friday the state plans to release the information on outbreaks in a few weeks but is undermined by an old computer system that makes accessing data difficult.

That’s not good enough, said David Crim, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, a state union representing about 120,000 teachers and other educators.

“While privacy is important, safety trumps privacy,” he said. “Parents and teachers want to know where an outbreak occurs, in what buildings and at what levels.”

Because of state law, the union has no way to force districts to release the information — and a Freedom of Information Act request could take weeks to process.

“We want to know as soon as the district knows,” Crim said. “I don’t know we have an enforcement mechanism other than shame and guilt.”

The demand from the MEA, a key ally of Whitmer, comes as many districts prepare to return to school soon, and some schools are reporting cases of COVID-19 among staff and students.

Just more than a week into its school year, Hartland High School in Livingston County moved to completely online this week after confirming at least 13 cases in the school district, with three probable ones. 

Most were at Hartland High, which will remain online until at least Sept. 9, Superintendent Chuck Hughes wrote in a Wednesday announcement.

The COVID-19 cases among students do not appear to be linked to the school. Rather, contact tracers determined infections likely were passed from one student to another at house parties and other gatherings, including those held before the academic year started, said Dr. Juan Marquez, medical director at Livingston County Health Department.

“We can very confidently say we haven’t seen evidence of transmission at school,” he said.

The decision to move online comes just more than three weeks after the local health department warned that cases were climbing among teenagers in the area — a worrisome trend as classes resume.

An outbreak at Central Michigan University, which began classes on Aug. 17, had grown to 117 confirmed and probable cases as of Thursday. Other college officials have told Bridge they were not surprised when students reporting to campus last week and this week also tested positive.

On Aug. 4, officials from Livingston, Oakland and Genesee counties warned that cases among young people were increasing

As of Thursday, 206 total cases of COVID-19 among had been reported among residents 19 and younger, according to Livingston County’s dashboard. 

Hartland’s Hughes had alerted parents before the school year as well, forwarding parents a letter from Marquez about the upswing in cases among teens. But he said he will use discretion on further notifications, alerting community members of any cases that require isolating large groups of people.

“I will not be sending out notifications for every positive case or quarantine situation,” he wrote.

He told Bridge notifying the community is “tricky,” in part, because numbers can be misleading. He noted, for instance, the infection of 13 students didn’t come from an outbreak in classrooms.

“Numbers are numbers that can be interpreted in many ways, thus they are only guide posts,” he wrote in an email. “The most important aspect of making decisions on how we proceed daily is the communication we regularly have with the health department.”

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