Editor’s note: This story was updated Wednesday, Nov. 18.
Multiple Districts — Several Kent County districts had already taken action in response to spiking cases of COVID-19 statewide by the time Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced new restrictions Sunday evening.
Faced with positive cases, students and staff in quarantine and shortages of substitute teachers, many superintendents moved students to remote learning or hybrid models. Now, under the new emergency order issued by the MDHHS, in effect Wednesday through Dec.8, all Michigan districts will follow suit.
High schools and colleges must close to in-person learning, Whitmer and health officials announced Sunday evening. Other restrictions include a pause to athletics and extracurricular activities. Districts have the option to continue in-person learning for kindergarten through eighth grade. However, several districts have also gone virtual at all grade levels, including Kentwood, Wyoming, Sparta, Kelloggsville, Byron Center, Grandville, Comstock Park and Godwin Heights.
“There are a large number of schools where staff members have had to quarantine. That has caused disruption and inability to find staff members,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff. “Several schools have had to go remote already due to that.”
Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler supported the governor’s decision, noting the district had already decided last Friday to move the high school and freshman center to all-remote learning through Thanksgiving beginning Tuesday, Nov. 17, so the state order just extends that. Kindergarten through sixth grade students will continue in person, but the two middle schools also went remote beginning Nov. 18 due to an increase in quarantined students.
“I just think it’s the right thing,” Shibler said, pointing out high school students are more social and have more activities after school and on weekends, as well as many having jobs. River Valley Academy alternative high school also closed Tuesday.
“It makes sense, (because) that’s where the (case) numbers are the highest,” Shibler said. “At the elementary level, they’re managing it pretty well.” He would close an elementary grade or building if necessary, he said, but not all eight buildings at once.
As of Friday, Nov. 13, Rockford High School and Rockford Freshman Center had 13 students with currently confirmed positive COVID cases, and 142 in quarantine, according to the district website. Shibler previously had closed the 9-12 schools for Oct. 12-23, due to an outbreak of 17 student cases and another 397 placed in quarantine.
Remote Easier for High Schoolers
Though in-person learning is most effective, high school students are better able to navigate remote learning than their younger peers, Shibler added.
“High school kids are more sophisticated when it comes to handling remote, online learning than your younger students,” Shibler said. “High school kids can be at home working remotely. It’s significantly more difficult, if not impossible, for elementary kids to be at home and be supervised,” especially with many of their parents working, he added.
He foresees a difficult period ahead, as students are continually forced to change learning modes depending on pandemic conditions.
“When everyone’s able to get back to normalcy, whatever that is, we’re going to see some loss of learning, no matter what,” he said. “It’s not a conducive environment for learning, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
Not a Blanket Shutdown
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston was a member of Whitmer’s Return to Learn Advisory Council and helped create the state’s “MI Safe Schools Return to School Roadmap,” which offers requirements and recommendations on reopening across Michigan. He supports the new order, emphasizing that the state is in a different position than it was when they wrote the roadmap with hundreds of more positive cases per day in Kent County. The new order isn’t a blanket shutdown, and that’s important for the economy and education.
“It’s looking at things in a comprehensive manner to keep vulnerable populations safe,” he said.
“I applaud the governor to have the courage to do what’s necessary in the face of opposition.”
Polston pivoted Lee Middle and High School, grades 6-12, to remote learning last Friday through Jan. 22, the end of the marking period. Kindergarten through fifth grades will continue in person. He made the call to close in-person instruction for older students because 11 staff members were quarantined.
“We couldn’t get enough subs,” he said, noting that the district is now utilizing the substitute teachers they do have for lower grades.
Elementary students require full-time help from parents to learn well remotely, which is too difficult on families who are working and trying to make ends meet.
“I feel comfortable moving forward with elementary (in-person),” he said. The district requires strict cohorts in elementary, meaning students stay with the same group of peers all day.
The governor’s order also allows in-person instruction for English-language learners and special education students. Polston said they are prioritizing that option for special education and newcomer students who have been in the U.S. for a year or less. Godfrey-Lee has a high percentage of native Spanish-speaking students.
Evidence: In-School Transmission Not Widespread
Godfrey-Lee has had 28 positive COVID-19 cases this school year. The district is part of a pilot program in partnership with the Kent County Health Department offering school-based COVID-19 testing. The district has tested about 300 staff and students, including those determined to be close contacts to individuals who have tested positive.
Evidence is showing that in-school transmission is not happening at high levels. Only one individual who was a close contact to a COVID-positive person in school has tested positive, Polston said: “We do as much testing or more than anyone and we allow close contacts to get tested. We’ve found close contacts are not testing positive.”
School mitigation measures are proving effective, but spread is fast and prevalent outside of school and in homes.
Polston urged people to wear masks, take the situation seriously and not gather in groups. Rapidly increasing positive cases are an indicator of deaths to come and cases are the highest they’ve been to date. “These emergency efforts are to get things under control and hopefully plateau cases,” he said.
Charles Honey contributed to this story