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COVID-19 surge has Grosse Pointe, Berkley, Bloomfield Hills among school districts going all-remote

As a surge of coronavirus cases impacts communities across the state, several Michigan school districts are weighing or have already pivoted entirely to remote learning to slow the spread.

Michigan shattered its daily COVID-19 case record again Thursday, adding 5,710 and 51 deaths in a day, joining other Midwestern states reporting an explosion of cases. Friday's caseload is also expected to be large, marking the fourth consecutive week of record cases.

Due to the rising number of positive cases in Grosse Pointe Public Schools, the district announced Friday it will also be pivoting back to remove learning for all students.

Young Fives to fifth-grade students who are in hybrid instruction, along with students in special education programs, will return to virtual instruction starting Monday, the district said.

Grosse Pointe has 220 students and 47 staff members in quarantine. There are an additional 10 classrooms shut down in quarantine, officials said, adding they continue to deal with significant staffing issues. Last week, Wayne County recorded an 8% infection rate and 1,763 positive cases.

"Similar to districts across the state, we simply do not have enough substitutes to cover the vacancies for teachers and staff who are self-quarantining due to COVID-19 exposure," the district said.

In August, Grosse Pointe parents rallied for in-person learning. More than 100 people, including families who brought their young children and dogs, marched about three-quarters of a mile to protest the school system's initial decision to start students in remote learning. 

Officials with Bloomfield Hills Schools also said Friday the district will switch classes to virtual learning from in-person instruction because of the increase in Michigan COVID-19 cases.

The school district's Board of Education held an emergency meeting to vote on the move, said Pat Watson, Bloomfield Hills Schools' superintendent. 

"While we are disappointed to need to be returning to fully remote teaching and learning, we will continue to provide instruction and services to meet the needs of all learners as best as possible during this challenging public health crisis," Watson said in a Thursday email to parents. "We greatly appreciate your partnership and support."

He said Friday that in-person learning will be paused for at least 21 calendar days.

Bloomfield Hills Schools is the third Oakland County district to switch to distance learning this week. The West Bloomfield School District said Monday it would temporarily make the switch due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The Troy School District said Thursday it would switch from a hybrid model to all-remote classes starting Monday.

On Wednesday, Bloomfield Hills school officials notified parents that the district had two positive COVID-19 staff cases at its Fox Hills preschool, one positive student case at its International Academy, and one positive staff case at East Hills Middle School.

Also Wednesday, the district switched to full distance learning at Bloomfield Hills High School after a number of teachers had to quarantine as a precaution.

Elsewhere in Oakland County, Keith Logsdon, president of the Berkley Schools Board of Education, notified parents Tuesday that the district's phase-in plan that was set to begin Monday is on hold.

The district planned to phase in elementary students first until the Oakland County Health Division changed the COVID-19 Risk Determination Level to an "E" category, the highest risk level on the department's Guidance for In-Person Instruction chart. The county's seven-day average positivity rate is 8.5% with 3,786 positive cases.

"When we approved the elementary return plan, the risk level was a 'C,' and the seven-day daily case average per million count was 46 compared to over 150 last Friday, tripling the cases in less than two weeks," said Logsdon, adding the board would not resume in-person learning until the risk reached at least a D grading.

Also in Oakland County, the Royal Oak Schools canceled plans to start hybrid learning next week. The district's school board on Wednesday approved a recommendation from Superintendent Mary Beth Fitzpatrick to continue with remote classes, citing the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission.

On Monday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 45 COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan pre-kindergarten through grade 12 schools and universities as of last week.

The highest number of new and ongoing outbreaks was in Kent County, where Grand Rapids is the county seat.

The data come from COVID-19 outbreaks reported by local health departments each week to the state health department as of the previous Thursday. An outbreak is defined as two or more COVID-19 cases among people who are from different households but may have shared exposure.

The largest outbreak in one school occurred at Benzie Central Community Schools in Benzonia, a village in the northwest part of the state, about 30 miles southwest of Traverse City. There, 11 cases were reported among students. 

Last week, Flint Community Schools announced it would also return to virtual learning per recommendations of the Genesee County Health Department. Since Oct. 16, there have been 49 new cases of COVID-19 in the district. 

On Sept. 20, the county had a 2.1% positivity rate. By Oct. 1, the positivity rate reached 4.3% and has since risen to 6.5%, "which is a significant factor in our discussions surrounding our learning options moving forward," officials said in a notice to parents.

After more than a month of entirely remote learning, Saginaw Public Schools Superintendent Ramont Roberts said the district had also reversed its plan to return in-person this week due to the spike.

Pre-kindergarten through second grade students were set to return to classes in-person on Nov. 2; however, he said in a letter to the district Sunday that classes will continue in the online Zoom model. He also recommended to the school board that all students remain online until the end of the first semester.

Last week, Saginaw County was above a 7.2% positivity rate, an increase of 3 percentage points from the previous week, Roberts noted.

More than 7,000 Michigan children tested positive in October alone, and 18 are hospitalized statewide.

The number of Michigan children testing positive has nearly doubled this fall — from 3,644 confirmed pediatric cases in August to 7,152 last month, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Among the children testing positive last month, 1,494 were 9 or younger, with 5,644 in the 10-to-19 age group. In Grand Rapids, 700 children tested positive last month at the Spectrum Health system.

More children were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 on Thursday than on any other day since the state started tracking pediatric coronavirus hospitalizations on Aug. 3. But serious illness is not common in children with COVID-19, doctors said.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said Thursday that she's "very concerned" about what she's seeing across Michigan. The state is averaging 261 cases per million people, and new cases are five times the amount recorded in early September.

"We've performed 43,000 diagnostic tests per day over the past week; however, the percent of those tests that are coming back positive is increasing and is 7.5% and has been increasing for the past five weeks," Khaldun said. Experts prefer a positivity rate of 3% as a benchmark to show the spread is limited.

Northville Public Schools Superintendent Mary K. Gallagher said while the district successfully returned to in-person learning in October, the past several days have resulted in a large, and growing number of students in quarantine from outside exposure.

The district is connected with two positive cases and more than 75 students are in quarantine. Should the spread continue, the district will have to follow stricter actions, she said.

"Several homecoming parties, including a party bus, were reported during contact tracing, with reportedly little evidence of mask-wearing or physical distancing," said Gallagher, urging parents to take precautions. 

"Contact tracing also revealed that, in some cases, students who were supposed to be quarantined due to a family exposure still participated in out-of-school activities. The quarantines have impacted students at Northville High School, along with siblings at our middle and elementary schools."