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Kalkaska finds its way through pandemic fatigue in latest surge

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Courtesy Kalkaska County
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Two weeks ago, transmission of COVID-19 in Kalkaska County put schools in a tailspin.

The rural district only had about a dozen students out sick, but more than 150 students were in quarantine. Plus, a daycare outbreak, which sent parents home to watch their toddlers, made staff shortages worse.

Kalkaska High School’s Assistant Principal John Arnold says they had to make a decision about what was safest for the community.

“I think we made the right choice,” he says.

Unlike other schools that shut down as cases rose, Kalkaska stands alone in the region for closing both in-person learning and its sports programs for two weeks.

Nearby districts fought to keep sports going when they paused. Many school board members said the mandatory rapid testing of athletes would catch COVID cases.

Arnold says Kalkaska County families understand that if schools can’t safely be open, then neither can sports.

“There were some upset folks,” Arnold says. “Some kids who know they won’t get those games back. But largely it’s been pretty supportive.”

Initially he tried to have sports to stay open but the district health department was against it, citing CDC and state recommendations.

The decision was easier to make with half the high school softball team out, and many baseball players also in quarantine, says Arnold, who is also the athletics director.

But the closure wasn’t trouble-free for many families, especially those who have bad internet access.

Shannon Carter-Nerozzi spends some nights sitting in her car in the Rapid River Township Hall parking lot trying to help her six year old daughter do homework. She says companies aren’t willing to bring high speed internet to their farm.

“[I have the] car running, burning gas to keep us warm enough so that she can sit there and do her homework. I can’t afford to do that,” Carter-Nerozzi says.

Kalkaska Schools says they’re trying to find a long-term fix for the many families without the internet. Superintendent Terry Starr says he’s in talks with Northern Michigan University to install satellite dishes on local towers that would extend the University’s service to Kalkaska families. 

“We’re working on things as quickly as possible,” Starr said in a Facebook Live video to families. “Though we realize this is an inconvenience. We wish it weren’t.”

In the meantime, the schools say students are welcome to come to the buildings to use the internet during the day.

Fighting pandemic fatigue

Neither Kalkaska schools or families want to do remote school, Arnold says. But it’s inevitable if cases are too high. 

He says the community has heard many times the behaviors that mitigate spread. They know what to do, but everyone is exhausted.

“It’s been the same message from our school district. It’s to do the best people can. We understand that folks have to live and work and they’re out and about in the community,” Arnold says.

While Carter-Nerozzi wishes last week didn’t go the way it went, she doesn’t blame the schools or the community for her situation. 

“You know 90% of it is personal choices and being responsible for your own choices,” she says. “If you want to play sports at school you’ve got to choose to not to maybe have the soccer game with the neighbors.”

Carter-Nerozzi thought about the risk of taking her family to Kalkaska’s National Trout Festival last weekend against the benefit of getting out of the house and having some fun. 

They decided to go early before the crowds arrived and wear masks.

The annual festival, which can attract thousands of attendees, was canceled last year because of the pandemic. This year, it went on as scheduled despite COVID numbers in the community that were high enough to close schools.

Many of the same attractions continued—including the carnival, the flea market and fishing contests.

On social media, Superintendent Starr asked families planning to go “to be as safe and as responsible as possible.”

The Trout Festival’s Chair Diana Needham says organizers made masks available and tried their best to enforce the policy on rides and indoors—as well as breaking up groups of people when they began to congregate.

“We tried to keep people separated in line as much as we could,” she says.

Needham says no one spoke to organizers about concerns that schools may close again because of the event.

“We had no issues,” she says. “No one even asked that question.”

Kalkaska public schools and sports programs resumed on Monday and plan to remain open for the time being.