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Northern Michigan schools face COVID fatigue and omicron concerns with latest spike

Morgan Springer
Interlochen Public Radio

Last Wednesday, Glen Lake Schools Superintendent Jason Stowe figured out 30% of his staff were absent, along with 22% of his students.

The district had planned on a half day that Friday and no school on Monday, so Stowe decided to close for Thursday and Friday, giving them a five day buffer for everyone to quarantine or recover.

“My feeling is that this is probably the beginning,” he said.

Leelanau County set its one-day record for new COVID cases on Friday, with 72 new cases reported to the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.

School-associated COVID cases are trending up across northern Michigan with some districts reporting highest numbers so far in the school year. This week, staffing shortages closed Ebenezer Christian School, Kaleva Norman Dickson Schools and Wolverine Community Schools.

A few staff who are out sick or home with a sick or quarantining child, can cripple schools already facing teacher and sub shortages.

“Sometimes we find out at five or six [in the evening that we don’t have enough staff]. Sometimes we find out at 8. Sometimes I find out at 4 in the morning,” said Petoskey School Superintendent Chris Parker.

Many school officials have gotten creative filling positions, including Crawford AuSable Schools Superintendent Justin Gluesing who got his bus drivers license this year. Meanwhile, one of his teachers at the high school fills in doing janitorial work at night.

“My staff has done a great job in terms of backing one and another up. We’ve been able to stay open,” Gluesing said. “But the worry is what we’re going to see with the new variant.”

A new law allows Michigan public schools to use non-teaching staff as substitute teachers for the rest of the academic year.

Superintendent Gluesing said they try not to pull their classroom aids to fill in as subs too often.

“If you remove that person and place them in a classroom so that you can have a class some of those other small group learning settings might not be taking place,” he said.

Crawford AuSable Schools hasn’t closed yet in 2022, but Gluesing counted a record number of school associated COVID cases on Monday, with 27 people out. More teachers will put in longer hours creating make-up work for students and subbing during their prep period.

“Rather than research their next unit of study and get ready for that, they have to set that aside [and fill for another teacher],” he said.

The Michigan Department of Education told the state legislature in November an investment of $300 million to $500 million over five years is needed to help solve the teacher shortage.

In the meantime, especially strapped northern Michigan districts are posting emergency alerts for subs on their websites or doubling Facebook ad spending in college towns to attract new teachers.

Superintendent Parker said Petoskey Schools’ biggest burdens have fallen on office staff, who are trying to balance their work with contact tracing for the health department.

“Our secretaries every day are spending unbelievable amounts of time tracking and dealing with COVID cases,” Parker said.

Schools may now have to take up more of that work as some district health departments are abandoning contact tracing to focus on clusters in high risk areas.

The new COVID variants have affected morale this year, superintendents report.

Officials find themselves sometimes in a tough position of enforcing precautions, while many are dealing with COVID fatigue, Gluesing said.

“People when they leave school are largely not following the isolation and the social distancing that they may have been more than a year ago,” he said.

Superintendents say their efforts now are focused on making sure staff are well supported.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.