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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
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As the first snows of the season begin to fall in Michigan, school leaders dealing with staffing shortages across their districts are facing yet another conundrum: what to do about a flu season that’s arrived alongside a major spike in COVID-19 cases.
There were more new cases in Michigan per population over seven days last week than in any other state according to the CDC. School districts have responded in various ways, by reverting to a combination of remote and in-person instruction, or making abrupt decisions to cancel classes altogether – sometimes in advance, sometimes with little notice.
READ MORE: Schools across the country are struggling to find staff. Here’s why
With a flu outbreak at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, flu diagnoses throughout the county also increased, according to the Washtenaw County Health Department. Between October 6 and Nov 15, University of Michigan officials reported 528 cases of influenza, which prompted a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to travel to Michigan to investigate. Influenza A was identified as the predominant strain, and 77 percent of those cases were in individuals who had not been vaccinated for flu.
“While we often start to see some flu activity now, the size of this outbreak is unusual,” Juan Luis Marquez, medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department, said in a statement. “This outbreak doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact on the broader local community, but it does raise concerns about what the flu season may bring.”
Noting the rise in respiratory illnesses and the infectiousness of the current COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) issued a public health advisory last week for individuals to wear face masks in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status; for public establishments to implement masking policies and encourage compliance; and for individuals who are not fully vaccinated or who are immunocompromised to avoid large crowds or gatherings.
READ MORE: Louisiana public schools grapple with learning lost to pandemic surges and storms
Ann Arbor’s public schools, for example, made the decision to close the entire week of Thanksgiving, rather than take the usual three days off for the holiday. “We’re just exploding with cases,” Jeanice Swift, the district’s superintendent, said, noting that both vaccinated teachers and children age 5 to 11 were getting sick.
At least 25 other Michigan school districts have done the same this week in the wake of the virus spike, at a time when districts were already experimenting with the school calendar.
Michigan schools have built into their schedules an allotment of six days a year that they can miss or cancel classes. These are usually taken for days with heavy snowfalls and referred to as “Snow Days.” However, since schools can now switch to remote learning in case of heavy snow, they are more able to “spend” those days if they face major teacher shortages. It’s a careful calculation that also considers a requirement for each school to have 75 percent of students in attendance on any given day. If a school falls short of that attendance, the district receives less state funding for that day, pro-rated to the actual rate of attendance.
In a letter to parents in the school district, Swift in Ann Arbor wrote that taking a week’s break will allow the school district to interrupt COVID-19 transmission and allow sick students and staff to recuperate. It will also help the schools deal with anticipated staffing shortages on a week that typically has fewer substitute teachers available, despite already increasing substitute teacher pay rates twice this semester.
At Southfield Public Schools in a suburb just north of Detroit, instruction shifted to four days a week of in-person instruction and one day a week of remote instruction for all its 15 schools from Nov. 5 through Feb. 4, the height of flu season in Michigan. This move will allow many students and teachers to participate in school but also stay isolated when they are not sure if they have the flu or COVID-19, or when they have to quarantine.
This combination of in-person and remote instruction helps the school district with both labor shortages and its ability to deep clean classrooms with electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet lights. “We were struggling with substitute teachers. We were struggling with adequate support services in regard to bus drivers, custodians, security, and food service, in addition to the national supply chain issues,” Southfield Public Schools superintendent Jennifer Green said.
“This allowed our students to receive five full days of instruction. It allowed us to leverage our support staff in a manner that would have more individuals in our facilities on Fridays for deep cleaning. So our security guards, our bus drivers, our food service, they could double as a part of the custodial team on Fridays since they were not providing services to students,” she added.
The district has also tried to improve how they recruit and support substitute teachers, extending staff incentives like access to a family vaccine clinic to substitutes and creating a “Sub Hub” that allows all the substitute teachers to gather in one place on Fridays so that the tech team can support them in their remote classrooms.
“Having them in one location affords us an opportunity to leverage their schedules where as a teacher would normally have a planning period, that substitute during that planning period could potentially go and cover another class because they’re all in the same room at the same time,” she said.
READ MORE: Missouri left mask rules up to school districts. Parents say their kids are at risk
One unexpected perk of this modified schedule is that families are finally able to come into the classroom, albeit remotely, and see what their students are learning.
“At the beginning of the school year, we made the conscious decision to keep everyone outside of our facility that did not absolutely have to come into our facility in an effort to mitigate the spread,” Green said. “That also meant that our parents could not come into our schools and experience class with their students as they had become accustomed to. This remote Friday affords our families an opportunity to see into the classroom, to see what our scholars are learning.” The school also encourages and helps parents to volunteer or apply to work on the playground, in the cafeteria, or as substitute teachers.
But the best way to help schools right now, Green said, is to follow the guidance of the health department and the CDC and to also be mindful of other mitigation measures like wearing masks, washing hands, and staying within one’s bubble to keep children protected and in class.
According to the AAPS COVID-19 Case Dashboard, 42 percent of the 76 new COVID-19 cases found in the school district last week occurred among 5 to 11-year-old students, who until recently were not able to get vaccinated. About one third of these new COVID-19 cases occurred among teachers, staff, and contractors, three times more than the previous week and more than double of any previous week during the pandemic. These increases in new COVID-19 cases come as the county and state experience similar increases, and a flu outbreak, too.
READ MORE: How doctors are getting COVID shots to kids ages 5-11
For the 100 schools in the Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD), the largest school district in Michigan, schools will close for two additional days on Thanksgiving week and shift to four days of in person instruction and one day of remote instruction for the three Fridays in December. About a dozen schools have shifted to remote at some point since the beginning of the school year, but this district wide move is in response to COVID-19 outbreaks, concerns of teachers and staff that classrooms need to be more thoroughly cleaned, staffing shortages, and mental health care.
“This work is already hard enough because of the socioeconomic status and the concentration of our students, mainly poverty and the history of racial injustice all plays out on the day-to-day basis within our schools,” Vitti said. “And that just makes the day to day work of teaching and leading harder. Exacerbating that is COVID, and exacerbating that is kids not being in school for a year and a half. We have to realize that our third graders have not been in school since kindergarten, that our 10th graders have never been to high school.”
The big difference for Detroit schools is that all students, teachers, and staff are being tested for COVID-19 once a week with a saliva test. This allows the school to catch all the COVID-19 cases, including asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, early. The schools also hired 100 contract nurses, one in every school, to help with testing and care of students who get sick, and 100 additional teachers to lower class sizes.
“Here in Detroit, COVID is very real,” Vitti said. “But the only way we were going to get our kids back in school and have our employees go back to school this year was to test, even after the vaccine. And so the positive is we’re being very transparent where COVID is. But the negative is we’re identifying COVID. And that means more quarantining.”
So far, about 5,000 students have had to quarantine at some point, with individual students or sometimes entire schools shifting to remote learning, which Vitti said is disrupting the learning process and is not sustainable long term.
The path forward, Vitti believes, lies in vaccinations and possibly a vaccine mandate, and he hopes that Michigan legislators will not politicize this public health issue. In Detroit, he said the vaccination rate for teachers is about 70 percent, for the community is about 70 percent, for teenagers is about 20 percent. It is only just beginning to be available for children ages 5 to 11.
“Among teenage students, there’s a greater recognition of the benefit of the vaccine,” Vitti said. “It’s now getting to the point where they want to be at school. They don’t want to be online. They don’t want to have to quarantine. They want to play sports consistently. They want to go to homecoming. And they see that their lives are not going back to normal, even though they’re in school. They’re largely tired of wearing the mask and they are taking greater initiative to get back.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of Dearborn/Detroit. @fkwang
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