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Northern Michigan schools and sports teams buck state requests for 2-week pause, will meet in-person

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Courtesy of the office of the governor
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UPDATE: Traverse City Area Public Schools' middle and high schools will continue with virtual learning the week of April 12, following a school board decision on Saturday. School sports will continue.

Most northern Michigan high schools won’t move online, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested educators take a two week pause from in-person instruction to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

 

Whitmer asked for youth sports’ seasons to be delayed and in-person gatherings limited in a Friday morning news conference. The public call comes weeks into a massive outbreak that has made the state the worst in the country for current COVID infections.

“The numbers show young people are not impervious to this virus, as we’ve seen a lot of cases among teens and young adult Michiganders,” Whitmer said.

But, the Governor refrained from issuing mandates, which left the decision up to local school districts. Overwhelmingly northern Michigan schools opt to continue in person, even those located in communities currently seeing rapid growth in new cases.

Local health departments support schools staying open

Northwest schools that had announced their decisions Friday all said they will continue to have in-person instruction.

Schools in Grand Traverse County will remain open, basing their decision off information from area health experts.

Northwest Education Services, formerly the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate District, said by county schools staying remote this week, it amounted to a post-Spring Break quarantine that slowed spread among students.

The district cited statistics from the Grand Traverse County Health Department that showed school children are, in the first weeks of April, making up 5% fewer of the county’s cases than they did in March—however, they still account for 16% of new cases.

“While COVID-19 metrics for student populations may be higher elsewhere in the state, the data for Grand Traverse County does not warrant an extension of remote learning for all schools,” the district’s statement reads.

Northern Michigan Health Department officials shared a unified message Friday afternoon, saying they would not ask schools to go online next week.

The local health departments said they carefully examined local case numbers, school quarantine absences and pandemic risk indicators including public health and hospital capacity. They add the expanded eligibility and availability of the COVID-19 vaccine will help slow spread.

“We know that in-person learning supports the mental health and overall well-being of youth,” said Lisa Peacock, the health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. 

She said area schools are safe for students.

“Each school district is equipped to make the classroom one of the safest places a student can be and we will continue to support them in making the best decision for their students, staff and the greater community,” Peacock said. 

The region’s major healthcare provider advocated more strongly for the community to follow the Governor’s lead.

“At Munson Healthcare, we fully support the recommendations from the Governor and local health departments for high schools to move to virtual learning, suspending sports for two weeks after spring break, enjoying outdoor dining, and quarantining and testing after travel,” chief marketing and communications officer Dianne Michalek said in a statement.

The network of hospitals is implementing surge plans, as they have reached peak hospitalizations during the pandemic. They currently have 95 COVID-19 patients in their care and they report the number “continues to increase at alarming rates.”

Districts say they can manage outbreaks

Local school districts that announced their decisions to remain open Friday afternoon were confident they could mitigate spread at school, even as cases continue to rise throughout northern Michigan.

As of Monday, the state reported 30 school outbreaks within the last month in northwest lower Michigan.

Otsego County has the third highest number of COVID cases per population in the state, up 44% over the last two weeks, according to the New York Times. Thirty percent of the county’s new cases in March were among people 19 and younger. However, two public school districts there will remain in-person.

Johannesburg-Lewiston Area Schools currently has a few positive cases throughout the district and several quarantined due to other family members who are positive, superintendent Katy Xenakis-Makowski shared Friday. But she is certain they can maintain safe learning practices in school.

“While we know there are also many positive cases in our community, we are also confident that we have not seen COVID spreading in our schools or on our athletic teams at this time,” Xenakis-Makowski told families.

Two weeks ago Gaylord Community Schools took an early spring break after about 80 school-associated cases were identified in the district in three weeks. Still, superintendent Brian Pearson said virtual learning and a pause of school sports was not necessary.

“It was clear in the message that this is a recommendation and not a requirement. The actual decision needs to be made at the local level where all of the unique factors of the community can be considered,” Pearson said in an emailed statement.

While Pearson didn’t elaborate on what factors needed to be considered he said the decision was made in consultation with the local health department and that it is in the best interest of the students.

North Central Academy, the public K-12 academy in Mancelona, said it would stay open because that’s what parents wanted.

“Throughout this entire COVID-19 pandemic we have remained committed to allowing our parents to have a choice in the way your kids are educated. We are staying consistent with this philosophy,” the school posted on its Facebook page.

Northern districts decisions run counter to appeals by the State Superintendent Michael Rice, who released a statement “urging Michigan school districts to support the Governor’s call” for a pause to in-person high school and youth sports.

Youth sports to continue Up North

State officials fingered youth sports as a special area for concern and asked Friday for leagues to immediately cancel practices and competitions.

Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy for health, said there have been almost 300 outbreaks reported in the state since January that have infected more than 1,000 people. 

“As a parent and former student-athlete myself, I understand how important athletics are to our children’s physical and mental health. However, parents and athletes need to understand the risk involved with youth sports if they choose to participate,” she said. “We’ve seen that the younger population has played a significant role in transmission during this most recent spike.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said Michigan should implement restrictions on contact sports, especially those happening indoors.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association said they will continue with the state basketball tournament this weekend. Representative Geoff Kimmerly said they are leaving decisions about spring sports over next two weeks up to high schools.

Local health departments say they’re not requiring a pause for school sports but they updated recommendations, including discouraging carpools and requesting mask-wearing at all points during activities.