Schools begin week with eye on COVID numbers after gov's plea

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

School districts in Michigan are going to be busier than usual this week.

Antigen testing for COVID-19 kicks off Monday for teenage student athletes, and school leaders say they will consult with county health departments and school boards this week over whether data supports keeping schools open for in-person learning.

This comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday asked superintendents to voluntarily close high schools for two weeks and send teens into virtual learning at home to combat rising COVID-19 rates. Many did not.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has asked school districts to voluntarily halt school as COVID-19 cases surge in the state.

Northview High School in Grand Rapids turned to Twitter on Sunday to remind parents and families that it will remain open on Monday in a hybrid model as planned.

"The purpose of this communication is to share that our post spring break schedule has not changed," Superintendent Scott Korpak said. "I will confer with the Kent County Health Department on Monday, April 12, to review the most recent COVID-19 data. I am hopeful that our current mitigation strategies, along with vaccination rates, are sufficient to maintain our planned schedule and no additional changes will be necessitated."

Most Michigan school districts opted to remain open this week, either for full-time face-to-face learning or in a planned hybrid-mode, despite the governor's plea which came as Michigan continues to lead the nation in the number of coronavirus cases and rates.

Cases among kids ages 10-19 have risen for the last five weeks, faster than any other age group as outbreaks continue to rise in schools and youth sports. From January to March, there have been 291 outbreaks from youth sports resulting in at least 1,091 infections, state health officials said on Saturday.

Two Metro Detroit districts, Ferndale Public Schools and Hamtramck Public Schools, announced Friday they would move students into remote learning at home in response to the governor's request.

"At Hamtramck Public Schools, we are committed to creating the safest learning environment possible for our students, families and staff. We believe it is important to continue to respond to the changing pandemic, and to always put the safety of our school community first," Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed said. "We plan to have students in grades K-12 that have opted for in-person learning back in schools on Monday, April 19."

Superintendents and principals scrambled Friday to meet and discuss Whitmer's recommendation for a two-week pause for youth sports and in-person high school classes. She also called for a pause in in-door dining.

Wendy Zdeb, executive director of Michigan's association for middle and high school principals, said on Sunday the governor's request doesn’t seem to be having a significant impact.

"A number of districts already planned on going remote for a week following break, so that decision had already been made," said Zdeb of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. "I haven’t heard of anyone delaying spring sports. With antigen testing beginning Monday, schools are counting on that to help mitigate a spread."

Zdeb said many districts are leaning on their county health departments for guidance and are making decisions collectively with other districts in their county or intermediate school districts.

Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools, which supports 28 local districts and 22 public school academies in Oakland County, said she is not advising districts take any specific action on the governor's request, questioning why the governor was asking educators to make the decision to close.

"This is a health crisis. It's not an education crisis," Robinson said. "Mandates and decisions have to come from the government and health department. Superintendents are not medical and public health professionals." 

Robinson said asking for schools to voluntarily close creates more confusion for educators after Whitmer asked everyone to offer in-person schooling in the past during the pandemic.

"We have more questions than answers," Robinson said.

The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said last week it supports the two-week pause and urged higher education institutions to institute a pause.

With many high school students recently returning from spring break destinations, several school districts offered free COVID-19 testing clinics over the weekend in partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. A list of community-based pop-up rapid antigen testing sites across the state can be found here.

Detroit Public Schools Community District kicks off its Neighborhood Vaccine Week on Monday at seven schools. Detroiters aged 16 and older or workers in Detroit will receive the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. Appointments can be made at (313) 230-0505. Walk-ins are welcome.

The district, which placed its students on a three-week remote learning pause post its spring break that ends April 23, plans to expand COVID testing to include students through a saliva test when students return the week of April 26.

Roseville Public Schools, which has 25% of its high school attending in-person and the rest at home, has a board meeting on Monday night. Superintendent Mark Blaszkowski said he plans to discuss county health data and review test results from weekend tests and tests done on Monday with student athletes. The school is opening for learning on Monday.

"I don’t have local school data. Testing data might tell me something different," Blaszkowski said. "We just don't know yet."