All Districts — When Scott Korpak was an elementary school principal and had just earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership, one of his second-graders approached him with the following message: “My mom said you are a doctor, but not the real kind.”
“I still smile when I recall this,” said Korpak, now superintendent of Northview Public Schools. “She was right; I am an educator, not a community health expert. Joann Hoganson and Dr. Nirali Bora are the experts.”
Hoganson and Bora are medical professionals and employees of the Kent County Health Department. Since July, they have met with Kent ISD superintendents via Zoom every Wednesday to answer questions about COVID-19 as it relates both to schools and the community. They also keep districts updated on positivity rates and numbers.
The partnership has been crucial in helping school leaders understand the nature of the virus and the types of mitigation strategies that can be most effective in a school setting. As cases have climbed this fall and outbreaks have occurred, districts have been able to lean on KCHD’s expertise in communicating with the community during a crisis. And as temperatures drop and Kent County sees some of its highest infection numbers to date, the two entities are working together to tackle the new challenges of school, during winter, in a pandemic, head-on.
“The KCHD serves as our ‘North Pole’ for decision-making,” said Korpak. “They have always demonstrated a willingness to find ways to support schools and the students we serve.”
Mitigation Strategies that Work
Hoganson, director of community wellness for KCHD, has been the health department’s liaison to area schools since the pandemic began. She helped them make sense of the guidelines in Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap and also developed a school toolkit for the county that is updated and revised weekly based on local cases.
“We all have our areas of expertise, and when you get into a challenge like (COVID-19), obviously you focus on your immediate needs and the things that you know,” said Cedar Springs Public Schools Superintendent Scott Smith, who has participated in work groups with KCHD to learn more about the virus.
“(The health department) gave us things to consider that we would have missed, and they’ve been instrumental in helping us understand how infection rates are impacting our area. That’s something we could have never done on our own.”
In Northview, the district used Hoganson’s advice in the fall to implement mitigation strategies for in-person learning such as a hybrid schedule, student cohorts and staggered school start and end times. Grades 7-12 also shifted to taking three courses at a time instead of the normal six, which reduces the number of class changes — and hallway exposures — per school day. Korpak said these classes, which last longer and cover a semester’s worth of content, “help our students to engage in deeper learning.”
But he also noted that some of the most successful virus prevention tactics have been the most obvious ones.
“A specific area where the KCHD was absolutely vital was in helping us understand the necessity of masks for all students, including elementary school students,” said Korpak. “This is still a controversial area, but it was particularly so before the start of the school year.”
Beyond masks, social distancing, cohorting and sanitizing surfaces, Hoganson said the practice of screening children for symptoms before school has emerged as one of the most successful mitigation strategies.
“Schools that use the screening, where the parents are cooperative and truly keep their kids home when they’re sick, they have less transmission than the schools that don’t have a rigorous screening system in place,” she said.
Risk Versus Benefit
The partnership has also allowed schools and the health department to communicate a unified message. When a statewide epidemic order last month closed high schools to in-person learning, but not younger grades, both fielded questions about the decision.
“Every time we look at schools, we look at risk versus benefit,” said Hoganson, who is also a registered nurse. “Is there a risk to keeping elementary kids in school? Yes, there is. But there’s so much benefit, too. A first-grader has a lot less ability to work independently in virtual school; they really need someone there by their side, helping them to achieve their educational goals. So if we can keep them in the classroom, we think that’s the best option.”
Still, Hoganson acknowledged younger kids can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, or have their symptoms mistaken for allergies or a cold. The KCHD has had few children between the ages of 5-11 be tested, and the number of positive tests among that small sample size has been very low.
“We don’t want to rely on data that isn’t complete, and so we really cannot say that little children in schools don’t have COVID-19,” she said. “That’s why we use the mitigation tools to keep them as safe as we possibly can, because virtual learning is just not as successful for them as it is with older kids.”
Schools can also help the health department spread the word about what happens outside classroom walls, Hoganson said. KCHD has seen the largest amount of youth-related virus transmission, especially among older grades, happen before and after school: carpooling, private prom parties, trick-or-treating and the like.
“Parents really need to have a commitment to decrease the social interactions of their kids outside of school if they want to keep them in school,” she said. “Save their outside time just for the school activities, and not have them in other gatherings like sleepovers and pizza parties. It’s so good for kids to socialize; we know it’s such an important part of growing up and none of us want to deprive our children of anything, but the truth is that they’re not safe right now.”
Staffing Challenges on the Rise
Such vigilance will only grow more important as Michigan heads into winter, Hoganson said. Whereas in the fall, schools could keep windows open for ventilation and hold many classes outside to social distance, those options decrease in snowy weather. Dry air and the onset of cold and flu season add to those challenges.
But while they’re working on contingency plans, the biggest issue many Kent County school districts are facing this season is not something the KCHD can directly help with: staffing. In Cedar Springs, Smith says he wakes up every morning wondering if this will be the day staff shortages will force a closure of some sort.
“In a normal year, the rates of absenteeism related to just the flu can close a building for a while,” he said. “So now putting flu season on top of COVID-19 really makes me nervous in terms of staffing our classrooms, or having enough people to serve food or clean our buildings.”
The vast majority of these staffing shortages have been due to quarantines and contact tracing, and not positive cases, Smith said. Prior to the state-mandated shutdown in November, the number of Cedar Springs High School staff and students in quarantine accounted for 99% of all absences. More than 180 high school students – one out of every five – were quarantining.
“Parents really need to have a commitment to decrease the social interactions of their kids outside of school if they want to keep them in school.”— Joann Hoganson, Kent County Health Department
Having more access to rapid-response virus testing, similar to the program currently being piloted in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, could be a way to combat the problem, Smith said. An accurate test that shows a negative result for the coronavirus within 24-48 hours could get that teacher or student back in the classroom, rather than having to wait the 14 days of quarantine.
The pilot testing program in Godfrey-Lee has been going well, Hoganson said, but KCHD is still gathering data and learning best practices. The next step will be to expand testing to a handful of other districts based on available CARES Act funds, a move they’ll likely make “soon,” she said.
Hoping for a Celebration
With soaring positivity rates in Kent County – numbers that Hoganson calls “scary” – the future of in-person learning in the next few weeks and months remains up in the air. After November’s state-mandated high school pivot to remote learning, the KCHD followed up with its own public health warning, recommending that county high schools remain closed until Jan. 15.
In response, many districts chose to also go virtual with their lower grades. Some plan to return mid-December, while others won’t return to school buildings until early January.
Hoganson is hoping this “tapping of the brakes” helps to slow transmission and turn the numbers around. She has the same goals for schools that have stuck with a more traditional schedule and will have their regular break for the holidays.
“My concern would be if we don’t stop for a short amount of time, we might have to stop for a long time,” she said. “If families can stay in small units, follow those mitigation strategies that have proven to be effective, and it brought numbers down and we could resume face-to-face instruction, let me tell you, we’d be celebrating.”