West Michigan schools to community: Mask up for COVID or we close down

If communities want schools to remain open, they need to follow the kind of safety protocols enacted in classrooms. (Shutterstock)

School superintendents in West Michigan have a blunt message for their communities: Wear masks and social-distance, or schools buildings may have to close.

Alarmed by spiking COVID-19 cases, superintendents at 46 school districts in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties signed a joint letter to their communities this week pleading with residents to follow safety protocols that health officials say can help limit the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

The letter captures a growing frustration among school officials, who have instituted strict safety protocols from state and local health officials, but have been unable to keep coronavirus cases out of their classrooms.

Related stories:

“Unfortunately, the collective hard work of schools alone is not sufficient in controlling community spread of the coronavirus,” the letter says. “Public health experts report significant increases in positive cases across our state and region in recent weeks. Health officials cite that the rise in cases is largely due to a lack of safe practices – mainly distancing and mask wearing – in social settings and community gatherings. 

“If cases continue to trend upwards, County Health Departments warn schools may be forced to implement additional restrictions to prevent continued infections. Restrictions may include cancellation, or other mitigation efforts, of extracurricular activities like athletics, band, choir and drama. 

“As a worst case scenario, schools may be asked to shift to a distance learning instructional model either periodically or for an extended period of time until cases decline,” the letter warned.

The letter comes as Michigan is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, with West Michigan being one of the regions suffering a large spike.

Kent County, home of Grand Rapids, has the highest seven-day average of new cases in the state. Ottawa County currently has its highest rate of new cases per 100,000 people (21 new per day) since the pandemic struck Michigan in March. Muskegon County, the third county whose superintendents signed the letter, has comparatively modest COVID-19 rates, at 9 cases per 100,000 people.

“We are in a steady incline,” said Kristina Wieghmink, public information officer for the Ottawa County Health Department. “Cases are popping up all around the county, and many are associated with social gatherings.

“The concern is coming from when we have students outside of schools, mingling in the community, and the risk of picking up the virus and bringing it in the school,” Wieghmink said.

Students and staff in Michigan schools are required to wear face masks. Most students have the option of learning from home during the pandemic. And schools have been quick to ask students to stay home if they’ve been exposed to a classmate who has tested positive.

Still, there are new or ongoing outbreaks in 84 K-12 school buildings, involving 435 confirmed cases among students and staff, according to the most recent state data released Monday. The number of schools dealing with outbreaks rose 25 percent Oct. 7-15.

In Michigan, local school districts are generally left to their own discretion on whether to open classrooms to students, conduct remote learning only, or some combination of the two, depending on the level of outbreaks and other circumstances in their communities. 

Many Republican leaders, from President Trump to Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have urged school buildings to be opened during the pandemic. 

Michael Shibler, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools in Kent County, said social gatherings outside of school that don’t include masks and social-distancing “threaten our ability to keep our doors open.”

Rockford started the school year online for two weeks before beginning in-person instruction. A month into face-to-face learning, Shibler moved grades 9-12 back to remote learning because of a COVID-19 outbreak. At least 17 students tested positive, and 416 students were placed in self-quarantine, out of about 2,400 students in those grades.

The students are scheduled to return to classrooms Monday, after being homebound for 10 school days, Shibler said.

“We’ve been working hard to follow the protocols set by the state health department and the local health department,” Shibler said. “And I believe the vast majority of our parents and students are following those protocols (outside of school). But we do have incidents in which students or families are not taking this seriously.”

Shibler said contact tracing shows that social gatherings outside of school brought COVID into schools, rather than school outbreaks spreading the virus to the community.

That matches the experience of contact tracers in Kent County. 

“Our people here in conversations with schools and contact tracing; they don’t believe a lot of these cases are popping up because of schools,” said Steve Kelso, spokesperson for the Kent County Health Department. “We’re actually very encouraged by how well the schools have done. [Recent COVID-19 spread] is mainly from community spread.”

The letter from superintendents emphasizes that school leaders want school buildings to be open. “While safety remains our number one priority, we also acknowledge the important role schools serve for our broader community,” the letter says. “Schools are vital in meeting the academic, social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students and families. We must do everything we can to keep schools safe and open.

“To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our communities and to keep schools open, we ask that all social and community gatherings continue to adhere to safe mitigation protocols. We’ve worked too hard over the last several months to reverse course now.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Mr. Libertarian
Fri, 10/23/2020 - 2:09pm

Ya, that is not how it works. Tax payers are coerced into a centralized service. Public servants don't get to make demands of the public. Schools do not have the legal authority to close. But what can you expect from a bunch of lazy marxists upset about Clinton losing the election? The people forcing the closures of schools belong behind bars with Whitmer.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 10:14am

WTF are you going on about. Nobody is "forcing" school closures; the schools are closing because too many teachers or students end up sick with COVID. Which is exactly what they are saying here, fewer people taking preventative steps will mean an increase in outbreaks which means the schools will have no choice but to close or go virtual again.

Jake K
Fri, 10/23/2020 - 3:34pm

Okay...time for a reality check.
COVID-19 is a virus. It’s transmittable. We can’t control it, although we’d like to think we can. There’s no vaccine. If a vaccine is developed but less than 50% of the population receives it, the virus continues.
Could we please change the story line and not obsess with COVID-19? Thus far in 2020 heart disease has killed more people in Ottawa County than has COVID -19. Maybe we should give some attention to it and TB and other ongoing health issues? The virus IS what it IS.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 10:08am

Strange, how were New Zealand, Taiwain, and South Korea able to control the virus?

Reality check
Sun, 10/25/2020 - 1:00pm

It appears that leverage is now being forced on the schools to try and force unconstitutional mandates on people's family and in their homes. Covid19 is NEVER going away. Each year it will be included in with the other flus like h1n1. We shut down schools for flu sometimes based on levels of sickness. But we don't allow schools to shut down families because of flus. We need to learn to live with the virus as we have with all the others including those that have vaccines but still circulate.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 11:32pm

Shirkey and Chatfield (dumb & dumber) are both idiots and should be ignored at all costs. Aren't you glad that Republicans and their judges have limited the Governor's attempts to keep us all safe ? Covid cases have skyrocketed since Republicans have gotten involved.