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TCAPS closes, other districts brace for increased COVID spread

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Too many absent teachers caused Traverse City Area Public Schools to close Friday with classes resuming online for most on Monday. Elementary students will still be in person.

TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner said almost a fifth of teachers called out on Thursday. VanWagoner said he had to step in as a substitute teacher.

“Every person that we had was out there helping out for our great kids,” he said. “We just don't have anybody left.”

Virtual learning wasn’t an option on Friday because of the short notice of the absences.

“It’s not as easy as flipping a switch one day and saying, ‘hey everybody let’s go remote,’ so that’s part of taking tomorrow,” VanWagoner said.

Schools consider increasing precautions

More northern Michigan districts are preparing contingency plans as local health officials warn the omicron variant may accelerate spread in the community.

Kingsley Schools’ Superintendent Keith Smith said he’s watching attendance in his schools and transmission rates among students and the community.

“It’s likely we would probably put some mitigation measures in place to try to slow it up before we switch to virtual,” he said.

The district is currently mask-optional, but Smith said he may need to require masks again as well as take additional precautions like spacing out students and making them eat lunch in classrooms.

However, he said he may be forced to close schools before then if even as few as five bus drivers or cafeteria staff become ill.

“We would be shut down very quickly… if you can’t get the kids in and you can’t feed them,” he said.

There’s a new law that allows school workers to fill in as substitute teachers, but Lori Higgins, with non-profit news site Chalkbeat Detroit, said there’s shortages among those staff as well.

Meanwhile, she said some school districts are dropping their mask mandates now that there is a vaccine for students under 12.

“A lot of school districts implemented mask policies at a time when [the omicron] variant did not exist,” Higgins said. “The reality is yes, there is a vaccine, but we still have this new variant… most places are experiencing significant surges.”

She said school districts in Grand Traverse, Kent and Ottawa Counties have dropped mask requirements, but some individual schools within those districts have opted to still require masks.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.
Max Copeland is the local weekday host of All Things Considered on Interlochen Public Radio and the producer of The Up North Lowdown, IPR’s weekly news podcast.