COVID-19 omicron cases could disrupt Michigan schools' return to classes
Michigan schools are yet again facing uncertainty as the state breaks new coronavirus records in the days before the new year.
Most public schools plan to return for a new semester on Monday or Tuesday. But a surge of coronavirus cases likely driven by the new omicron variant is once again elevating concern about indoor gatherings and in-person school.
It appears most schools are staying the course and planning to resume in-person school rather than a switch to virtual, continuing to utilize safety measures like mask mandates to keep schools open. However, some have closed: The Pontiac School District on Thursday announced that students would begin the year in virtual school until Jan. 18.
Whether schools can stay open may prove to be a challenge, if staff shortages continue as teachers and other employees quarantine, test positive or even quit. Shortages in the fall closed schools intermittently as the year wore on, due to resignations and positive coronavirus cases. In an effort to stem shortages of substitute teachers, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a law allowing school employees, such as classroom aides and bus drivers, to fill in as a substitute if they have a high school diploma.
On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also sent a letter to school superintendents urging them to continue enforcing mask mandates upon return, and to test staff and students regularly.
The Detroit Free Press asked a smattering of districts whose representatives responded about their plans. Here's how they responded:
- Grand Rapids Public Schools: Spokesperson John Helmholdt wrote in an email that the district is planning to be "100% in-person" starting Monday. A mask mandate is still in effect.
- Eastpointe Community Schools: Eastpointe will resume in-person on Tuesday. Spokesperson Caitlyn Kienitz wrote that the district wants to remind parents to monitor their children for possible symptoms before sending them to school.
- Novi Community School District: Superintendent Steve Matthews wrote that the district sees no need to postpone a return to school. A mask requirement remains in effect and staff will monitor their health.
- Riverview Community Schools: Superintendent Russell Pickell wrote that the district plans to resume face-to-face instruction on Monday. A mask requirement will remain in place.
Experts say rapid COVID-19 tests will be key to keeping classrooms open. Michigan has a program to distribute free tests to a limited number of families in an effort to help schools. The testing is available through individual districts that sign up for the program with the state.
Districts may also adopt vaccination mandates for staff members. Detroit Public Schools, the state's largest district with nearly 50,000 students, adopted a mandate in December. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said a student mandate is likely to follow.