K-12 schools are now the number-one source of COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan, according to state data released this week.
For the week ending March 11, the state identified 162 outbreaks in K-12 schools, including 54 new outbreaks with the prior week. For the first time, school-related outbreaks have surpassed those in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
But state officials warn this outbreak data can be tricky to be interpret. The drop in nursing home-related outbreaks is largely due to the fact that many residents in those places have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Also, schools, unlike some other group settings, are required to report positive COVID cases to the state, and school testing has become more widespread as more return to in-person learning.
Michigan health officials, including state epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo, are treading carefully when it comes to discussing schools as potential COVID hotspots. They say that with cases and positivity rates once again on the rise statewide, school outbreaks are driven largely by spread in the wider community, and emphasize the importance of COVID safety protocols in schools.
“The classroom environment itself has not been a strong signal for outbreaks,” Lyon-Callo said. “It tends to be more the activities associated with schools, including sports, but not limited to sports.”
That distinction—that classroom-based transmission exists but is relatively rare, which other school-related activities are more likely to spread COVID-19—is one that reflects the experience of some school districts that have had recent outbreaks.
Carl Schultz, superintendent of Bedford Public Schools in Monroe County, said he decided to temporarily suspend in-person learning at the middle and high school levels after at least a dozen students tested positive there. The district is planning to resume in-person classes on Monday.
“Obviously there is some in-school transmission, but a great majority of what we found from the beginning of the school year has been the students transmitting to their very close friends,” Schultz said. “In most of these cases, in doing the contact tracing, it really goes back to positive family members, not necessarily sitting in a class and having somebody that’s positive near them.”
Schultz said with case rates rising again, the community needs to remain vigilant. But he’s hopeful that with vaccination rates increasing—including about 75% of the district’s teachers—this will be the last time he has to make this call.
“We're just hoping it's kind of the last storm before the calm,” Schultz said. “So we're fingers crossed, keeping vigilant and hoping that we can put this to bed here in very short order, because I know we're tired of working with it being our daily routine.”
Schultz said his district couldn’t trace any COVID cases back to sports teams. But John VanWagoner, superintendent of Traverse City Area Schools, said the experience there has been similar but different—with most cases traced back to out-of-school exposures, but with athletics definitely in the mix too.
“Lately we’ve had an uptick [in cases],” said VanWagoner. “A lot of it resulting from those outside [exposures], but we do believe there are some elements of athletics that have had an uptick.”
VanWagoner said the district was looking to make rapid COVID testing mandatory for student-athletes. On Friday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that will be required for student-athletes before all practices and competitions.
“We think that [mandatory testing] would be a situation where we can identify it a little sooner, than some of the situations we’ve seen across the state, with entire teams wiped out,” VanWagoner said. “And we would like to avoid that.”
With both COVID cases and school outbreaks increasing, state epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo answered a question about whether schools can be considered “safe” this way.
“Everything that we do with COVID-19 is about risk reduction, and this is why we are pushing hard on the use of masks,” Lyon-Callo said. “We're pushing hard on use of social distancing, testing, and quarantining so that we can reduce the potential for exposure to COVID-19 within the school setting.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is expected to announce that it will change social distancing recommendations for schools from six feet to three feet, noting a study where the extra three feet appeared to make little difference if students are wearing masks. Kent County has already adopted this more relaxed standard.