While some leaders express concerns on public health and the economy, State Rep. Greg Markkanen has another concern about the pandemic’s effect on reopening schools: snow days.
DETROIT, MI — Two of Detroit’s young students who resumed in-person education for summer K-12 classes at Detroit Public Schools have already been diagnosed with the coronavirus, the city’s health department announced Sunday. The diagnoses came just days after returning the community’s youngest to classroom learning.
Data published by Covid Act Now shows that Michigan’s infection rate — how many other people a COVID-positive person infects — is slightly more than one, meaning those two cases will likely infect someone else. The close quarters of schools, which limit the practicality of social distancing, mean that the number for these two cases might be much higher.
This doesn’t just pose a problem for students and families, but for the effort to combat the virus and reengage the state’s economy on a larger scale. As The ’Gander reported, a few superspreader events that largely consisted of adults crowding at a Lansing bar or at a Lake St. Clair boat party contributed to a significant backslide in the management of the crisis observed in July.
That backslide in infection is a major threat to reopening sectors of the economy. Following the June and July spikes in the virus, indoor service at restaurants was halted again. Beginning Friday, even Upper Michigan restaurants will be closed to indoor service.
Parents worry kids won’t be able to take the right precautions either.
“My biggest fear is sending [my daughter] back to school, because she can’t manage to put on her socks in the morning, so having her put on her mask and use hand sanitizer and I’m on my way to work and have to think about if she’s following protocol?” said Tiffany Simmons of Taylor. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 11-year-old.”
Michigan Leaders Push In-Person Instruction
In late July, Michigan House Republicans passed their “Return to Learn” plan (likely to face a veto), which pushed for the youngest Michiganders to return to in-person education and mandated online learning days in an otherwise in-person schedule.
Republicans in the House have argued this is a flexible approach to returning children to classrooms.
“The coronavirus has affected different areas of our state very differently,” said State Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock), a former teacher, when announcing details of the Return to Learn plan in June. “As we move forward, what’s safe for kids in Detroit is not necessarily going to be what’s best for students in the Upper Peninsula. That’s why it’s so important for our schools to be given the flexibility to make the best choices for the education of their students.”
Markkanen’s only major criticism of the Return to Learn proposal was that it limited the number of snow days districts could use in the winter to make up for schedule disruptions posed by the pandemic. He otherwise strongly supported it.
“Two snow days a year just isn’t going to cut it for schools here in the Upper Peninsula,” Markkanen said. “I will be fighting to make adjustments to that part of the proposal.”
This contrasts with the policy set forth by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, who have pushed for a plan responsive to the progress of the pandemic called MI Safe Schools. MI Safe Schools has been enacted by the governor through emergency orders and policymaking, but it faces harsh criticism from the Republican-controlled legislature.
“We could be in a totally different place, either better or worse, quite frankly, in a few weeks,” Khaldun said. “It really depends on the behaviors of everyone.”
What the Science Says
While American schools have largely remained shuttered since the early days of the pandemic, there is data on both other environments and other countries that paint a picture of what returning to schools might look like for Michiganders.
Data reported by TIME shows that most children and young adults don’t develop symptoms of the coronavirus when infected, but still are capable of transmitting the virus to others. TIME also reported that a small-scale contact tracing operation in South Korea found that while elementary-aged children spread the virus at a slower rate than adults, children over 10 were as effective spreaders of the disease as adults.
With four out of five children acting as silent carriers, a virus brought into a school could go unnoticed for some time, causing the disease to spread to other asymptomatic children who then bring the virus home. Even at reduced rates of infecting others, the stealthy nature of the virus in young kids poses a serious hazard.
“It’s a trade-off,” Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told TIME. “If they’re not shedding a lot of virus, it may be less likely, but they may be having a lot more contact because they’re not ill.”
One of the latest trends in virus progression is in Florida, where just weeks ahead of schools reopening, cases among children spiked by more than 20%, reports Newsweek. Florida continues to push reopening, however, citing academic damage done without in-person education.
When looking ahead to reopening school buildings, it’s teachers, bus drivers, staff, and aides — all adults — most likely to become symptomatic, hospitalized, or even die from an infection. As a result, the American Federation of Teachers has authorized its members to go on “safety strikes” in protest of unsafe working conditions.
And that’s a very real risk. In April, a Detroit city bus driver died of the coronavirus after harshly criticizing passengers’ unguarded coughing. Jason Hargrove gave an impassioned testimonial on Facebook about the situation in March just weeks before his death. School bus drivers will face the same challenges Hargrove did.
Can the Risk Be Managed?
While good infrastructure like modern ventilation systems and large hallways and classrooms may help mitigate some of the risks schools pose, not all schools have access to good infrastructure. East China teacher Kimberly Eberhard pins this disparity on decades of disinvestment in public schools.
“Our buildings are old. The halls and classrooms are small. There is not a proper ventilation system appropriate for pandemic measures,” she told The ’Gander. “The federal government would have to create new structures which would meet safety requirements along with technology for all kids who need it at home.”
“Education has been neglected for decades and now everyone will discover how bad it has been.”
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Despite the implications on the economy of schools becoming superspreaders throughout the state, Michigan Republicans have told schools to figure it out.
“Districts will do what they need to do in order to make schools safe for kids,” argued Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield), chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
And if this situation does contribute to a significant rise in cases, as has been already demonstrated with restaurants, Michigan may need to once again disengage sectors of the economy that pose significant risks in accordance with the MI Safe Start plan to curb the reignited spread of the disease.