Why it still matters whether Michigan K-12 students contract COVID

Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools Superintendent Jeff Wright says COVID-19 cases in schools must be taken seriously. A student in his district was hospitalized. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Wright)

When Michigan school districts forged plans this fall to open classrooms to students, there was little question it would lead to some spread of COVID-19. The question was: How much? And would it be manageable?   

More than six weeks into the school year, the answer, so far, falls somewhere between no problem and a raging wildfire. 

There are currently 435 confirmed coronavirus cases connected to outbreaks at 84 K-12 schools, according to a state report released Monday.

But what do those numbers mean? Are they cause for panic, or relief? And do the numbers much matter, given that only a small fraction of young people have serious complications in the pandemic? 

Bridge Michigan answers some basic questions on school COVID outbreaks that readers have posed to us.   


Is 435 cases a lot?

There are about 1.5 million students in the state’s public K-12 schools and nearly 350,000 teachers and staff. Add in the 100,000 or so students in private K-12 education and the staff in those schools, and that makes about 2 million people in our statewide education system. In that context, 435 is a small number (roughly .02 percent).

It’s difficult to compare confirmed infections in Michigan schools to that of the general population because the data are collected in different ways. The 435 cases in new or ongoing outbreaks in K-12 schools include a tally of infections that has been confirmed over several weeks, while the state releases daily tallies of confirmed cases over the past 24 hours.

The math is also complicated by the fact that school outbreak data are likely an undercount of total coronavirus cases in schools. State health officials define an outbreak as two or more cases tied to a place and time; students and staff members who health officials determine contracted the virus outside of school or school activities – for example, from other family members – are not included.

How many more cases are there in schools beyond the 435 listed as being connected to outbreaks? No one is keeping tabs.

How many students and staff fell ill or died?

No one is tallying this, either. Bridge Michigan reported that in September, one student was hospitalized in Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools, and a teacher’s aide in Carson City-Crystal Area Schools died after contracting COVID-19. The state breaks down hospitalization and death data by age group, but not by source of outbreak, other than those tied to nursing homes.

On average, young people are less likely to suffer serious health consequences than older people. Michigan residents up to age 29 now make up 31 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases but only 0.2 percent of deaths; Those aged 70-79 comprise 7.3 percent of cases but 27 percent of deaths; those 80 and older, 6 percent of cases, but 43 percent of deaths.

If almost no one in schools gets seriously sick, does it matter if there is COVID in classrooms?

People ranging from President Trump — who as recently as this week called for Michigan to “get your schools open” — to parents calling superintendents, question whether local school officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are overreacting by urging continued caution to prevent the spread of coronavirus cases in classrooms. 

And some high-profile leaders are promoting a “herd immunity” approach, including Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. This would involve broadly opening schools and allowing the virus to spread, while isolating seniors and other vulnerable members of the population.      

The vast majority of health experts, though, say school infections should be taken seriously, and that includes continuing measures to minimize transmission, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and a hybrid approach to in-class learning in which groups of students attend school on alternate days to create more space in classrooms.  

The key to remember, experts say, is that a person who contracts COVID-19 doesn’t have to be seriously ill to spread the potentially deadly virus to others.

“They say the kids will be fine,” Dr. Matthew Sims, an infectious disease expert at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak told Bridge. “OK, so say a kid gets COVID and spreads it to 20 to 30 other kids in their class. And they go home to families that are often multigenerational. Now you have community spread.”

In other words, the students won’t die, but their grandparents might.

The state doesn’t collect data on secondary infections that began with school outbreaks. There have been documented cases of community spread from outbreaks among college-age Michigan residents, another age group that has few serious health consequences, and the Centers for Disease Control says children can spread the virus to others even if they are asymptomatic.

“To know what the impact (coronavirus cases in) schools is on everyone else, it’s hard to say,” said Beaumont’s Sims. “We do know that when schools shut down (in spring 2020), it led to a decrease in COVID.”

Why are some schools open for in-person instruction, and others fully remote?

The state allows local school districts to make their own decisions on whether to operate with full, in-person instruction, completely remote, a hybrid of the two, or give families the option to choose. Schools developed reopening plans based on coronavirus levels and other factors in their communities, as well as on feedback of local health officials and parents.

When the new school year began in September, 86 percent of families had the option of having their children in classrooms at least part of the week, according to a Michigan State University analysis of school reopening plans.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has had some classrooms open and some schools fully remote so far, wants to move to more face-to-face instruction soon, while Grand Rapids Community Schools, which had been slated to return to in-person learning Oct. 26, announced Monday that it will stay fully remote through at least the beginning of January, citing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the community.

Safety concerns vary by location. For example, the majority of school districts near Michigan State University and the University of Michigan began the year online out of fear that the arrival of college students would cause a spike in cases (they did, in both East Lansing and Ann Arbor).

How many students are learning at home?

No one is tracking it at the state level. The number is also a moving target, because numerous schools have closed for a week or two this fall in response to coronavirus outbreaks, and then reopened. For example, some schools in the western Upper Peninsula recently switched to remote learning because of a spike in coronavirus cases across that region.

So how do we get all schools reopened?

Marcus Cheatham, health officer at the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, said the way to keep schools open isn’t to downplay coronavirus in classrooms, but to change behavior in the community that helps spread the virus.

“We have a lot of [students] in quarantine, and that means we can’t return to learn; it means we can’t have kids in school to get ready for their future,” Cheatham said. “There are so many venues where people aren’t wearing masks and social-distancing. It’s very important for everyone to change the way they’re acting so we can keep our schools open.”

Jeff Wright, superintendent of Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools, agreed. 

“One or our core values is the common good, that we care about others more than we care about ourselves,” Wright said. “The common good of washing hands and wearing masks, following those procedures, because we don’t want grandma and grandpa to die alone, or have moms and dads to get seriously ill and have long-term conditions.”

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.


Dumb GOP
Wed, 10/21/2020 - 1:03am

Yes, most children actually live in homes with other more vulnerable human beings.

Rebecca Kelley
Wed, 10/21/2020 - 8:50am

Experts say we are headed into a second wave of Covid 19, with at least 400,000 more deaths between now and February nationwide. It is time for Western Michigan schools to hunker down and go back to virtual learning. Most of the student activities are being cancelled anyway. I have a granddaughter who is a Senior in Greenville High School so I say this with frustration and sadness. Nevertheless, if schools continue to stay open there will be more tragic deaths. Why wait for teachers, staff and possibly students to die before we make this decision?
Please officially close all of our schools during what experts are predicting to be the "darkest days" of this pandemic.

George Hagenauer
Wed, 10/21/2020 - 9:58am

I would check recent studies on levels of virus in young children that seem to indicate that younger children can handle higher amounts of the virus making them potentially super spreaders.

Wed, 10/21/2020 - 1:28pm

"In other words, the students won’t die, but their grandparents might."
At what point do we question the wisdom of mixing low risk often asymptomatic young people with elderly and or high-risk folks which amounts to perpetual Russian Roulette.
Especially considering the high likelihood of a truly long-term effective vaccine not being available anytime soon if ever. Maybe it's time to concentrate our attention on solutions for those folks rather than locking away everyone? Or maybe concentrating on methods of identification or testing of the factors that cause some folks have truly life-threatening reaction from this virus as opposed to the minimal effect, the majority of cases experience?

Think about it!
Wed, 10/21/2020 - 2:08pm

It's kind of simple, we don't want to kill grandma and grandpa before their time or leave children as orphans.

What's simple?
Thu, 10/22/2020 - 9:23am

Everyone sits home locked away and collects off the government until they do or don't find a cure or vaccine? Sounds super simple our Country will never come back from that. Pretty sure you might want to try and live your fullest life now! They may never cure this seems to just keep evolving and now the flu will add more sickness. Wear your mask if that's what you choose. But shit use basic common sense wash your hands, keep your hands out of your face in public etc. But why lock away? That's absolutely no life! And probably exactly what China wanted a dumber anxiety scared America!

Mike in the GLB...
Thu, 10/22/2020 - 10:45am

I've read nothing here, or anywhere, on how this experience is impacting the educational outcomes of students. Well I'll say it. The education of student at all levels is being severely impacted in a negative way by our response to the virus. When will there be discussion and focus on how to get Michigan's students back learning and on track? Michigan Public Health officials, our community leaders, local school administrations, teachers and school boards, and politicians do not speak of it. In my opinion, it's a giant elephant in the room and no one is talking about it. All we hear from our leaders is their fear of community spread and the risk little Johnny is to his Grandma if he goes to school or plays soccer.

PLEASE, let's move beyond our fear of the virus and focus on getting kids educated and through this challenge. The future of Michigan depends on it.

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 9:54am

Parents are not having their children tested for Covid because the illness is so mild in children so to say these cases are underreported is an understatement. They are keeping them out of school for a few days "for vacation, a doctor's appointment, a rash, a sprained ankle" and then sending them back without proper quarantining for their children or the children in their class and they are getting "alternative diagnoses" from doctors who are diagnosing with croup or bronchitis without ever even testing for Covid even though the symptoms are the same. When there is a confirmed case that a conscientious parent reports to the school contact tracing and quarantining are not happening much of the time. The parents, school administrators, and pediatricians will do anything to hide what is really happening in order to keep schools opens and that fuels untraceable community spread and put teachers and staff at risk.