Schools in Alma, Auburn Hills, Birmingham among 11 reporting outbreaks of COVID-19, state says

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Schools in Alma, Auburn Hills and Birmingham were among 11 reporting COVID-19 outbreaks since school resumed, although state data released Monday shows the positive counts remain low.

The 11 include five outbreaks considered by the state's health department as new and six deemed ongoing, and the positive case counts were as small as two and as large as six.

All were much less than what has been recorded this fall semester at Michigan's universities and colleges. Grand Valley State University, for example, has had 438 positive cases, and Michigan State University and Central Michigan University have both reported spikes in cases since students returned.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services identified the K-12 schools with COVID-19 outbreaks for the first time on Monday, although the data lags identification of cases by several days.

Among them, Luce Road Elementary in Alma has the most reported illnesses — six cases — in its preschool and elementary school program, impacting both students and staff there.

Alma Schools Superintendent Donalynn Ingersoll sent parents an email on Sept. 5 informing them of a second positive case of COVID-19 within a first-grade classroom at Luce Road Early Childhood Learning Center.

"Under the direction of the MidMichigan Health Department, we believe the safest action at this time is to close Luce Road School for a 14 day period, from the date of last possible exposure (September 3)," Ingersoll said in the letter. "Beginning Tuesday, September 8, Alma’s Kindergarten and first grade students will transition to Panthers On-Line."

The district provided names and contact information of potential close contacts to health officials and said COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting protocols would continue to be followed, Ingersoll said. The entire school was deep-cleaned and disinfected following COVID-19 exposure protocols during the closure and students are expected to return to school on Friday.

Four other K-12 schools, none in Metro Detroit, also recently reported new outbreaks.

They include: Keicher Elementary in Michigan Center, two cases among preschool/elementary staff; Arrowwood Elementary in Saginaw, four cases among preschool/elementary staff; Parkside Elementary in Rockford, two cases among preschool/elementary staff; Thornapple Kellogg Middle School in Middleville, two cases among junior high/middle school students.

State health officials announced "in an effort to provide accurate and timely information about COVID-19 in Michigan schools," the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will begin reporting outbreak information by school building. 

A COVID-19 outbreak is defined as two or more cases with a link by place and time indicating a shared exposure outside of a household.

The information being posted on the website at 3 p.m. each Monday will include K-12, college and university school name, address, number of cases and if the cases involved staff, students or both, state health officials said.

Students or staff exposed to COVID-19 outside the school building and are not thought to have spread the virus in the school due to quarantine or self-isolation are not included in the data.

“Parents and students should know that if their school is listed, their local health department and school are already investigating. Based on that investigation, people are contacted individually if they were possibly exposed to COVID-19 at school,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“Michigan schools are working hard to maintain a safe environment while also providing quality education."

New and ongoing outbreaks are counted only once. Ongoing cases are those reported as of Sept. 10. Ongoing outbreaks are defined by state health officials as those that had already been identified in previous weeks but have had at least one new associated case reported to the local health department in the last two weeks.

For K-12 ongoing outbreaks, there are several in Lower Michigan. They include:

Oakland Christian Elementary School in Auburn Hills has four cases in its preschool/elementary staff and student body; Bright Beginnings in Morrice has three cases among students; the Birmingham Groves Big Brother Big Sister Program at its high school has two cases among students; Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac has three student cases; Jenison High School in Jenison has two cases among students and staff; the St. Clair County RESA in Marysville has three cases among staff at its high school.

Students arrive for classes on the first day of school at Notre Dame Prep and Marist Academy last month.

Andy Guest, head of school at Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, said the private Oakland County school has had three students test positive for COVID-19 since it opened in August.

"Today, we have zero active cases of COVID-19, and there has been no indication of community spread," Guest said in a statement Monday.

"We continue to remain vigilant with our cleaning, sanitation, hygiene, screening and mask protocols outlined in our return-to-school plan and are in adherence to Archdiocese of Detroit guidelines and the MI Safe School Roadmap for the safe reopening of schools.”

Guest said the school is tracking all positive cases, reporting those cases to the Oakland County Health Division, assisting in contact tracing, and quarantining students who might have been exposed to a positive case.

All three cases were reported by a parent who had sought out a test on his or her own for their child, he said.

After performing the contact tracing, the school determined 30 students needed to quarantine at home. None had symptoms and none became sick, Guest said. They all returned to school on Monday.

The fact that none fell ill "leads us to believe there was no community spread," Guest said.

Brad Jernigan has a son in the high school where the positive cases were. Jernigan said Notre Dame used the contact tracing tool through Oakland County to identify which students might have been exposed, and those students were immediately sent home.

"In each case, there was no spread because of the way it was quickly handled, so we are very comfortable in the way the school has been handling it," Jernigan said.

Anne Cron, a spokeswoman for the Birmingham school district where Groves is located, said Monday the cases occurred on Aug. 17 at a senior registration event at Groves and Aug. 19 at a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor training event at Beverly Park.

Emails were sent to parents to inform them of the cases.

"In both situations, we communicated with participants immediately to alert them of the potential exposure and worked with OCHD to provide additional information to assist with contact tracing," Cron said. "In both instances, OCHD determined that no further exposure occurred for our participants, as safety protocols were in place."

The names of schools where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred, as well as whether the cases involved staff, students or both, will be reported every Monday by state health officials, a departure from past practices when outbreak information was released only by region.

State health officials said if a school is listed, local health departments and schools are investigating and will contact families directly if their child was possibly exposed to coronavirus at school.

Data on COVID-19 outbreaks are being collected weekly from the 45 local health departments across the state.

State health officials said many factors, including the lack of ability to conduct effective contact tracing in certain settings, might result in underreporting of outbreaks.

"This information does not provide a complete picture of school outbreaks in Michigan and the absence of identified outbreaks in a school does not mean it is not experiencing an outbreak," the health department said in a statement.

This comes as about 86% of Michigan school districts are offering some or all instruction in person at the beginning of the school year, according to a study by Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative.

The study found 59% of Michigan school districts are offering students an option to return to school five days a week and 27% of districts are providing children with the ability to return to schools at least two to three days a week.