A finished clean room with stacked chairs in the science room at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Boston's Mattapan, which were being cleaned for the reopening of school on July 9, 2020. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A finished clean room with stacked chairs in the science room at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School building in Boston's Mattapan, which were being cleaned for the reopening of school on July 9, 2020. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

An outbreak at a rural Michigan school took the life of an educator last fall.  There have been almost 50 outbreaks like it this month alone.

CARSON CITY, Mich.—Last fall, the Carson City-Crystal Area School District (CC-C) closed down following an outbreak of coronavirus. The small, rural district serves students in central Michigan.

The following day, the district would have one fewer professional to support its 900 students. 

Thursday night, Sept. 24, 2020, paraprofessional Michelle McCrackin died at 53 years old from her coronavirus infection. She was one week from surviving a year of the pandemic.

“Michelle was extremely dedicated to the students and staff at CC-C schools. She was also known for her dedicated work as the union president and for her support of staff and her advocacy for doing what is right for the school community.” Superintendent John Sattler said in a statement. “She will be greatly missed.”

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And she’s one of 15,699 Michiganders the coronavirus has taken in its first year. 

Educating During a Health Crisis

Things haven’t been easy for educators. There aren’t playbooks for operating a school during a once-in-a-century global health emergency. As schools returned to in person instruction in recent weeks, outbreaks have occurred across the state. The one that claimed McCrackin was joined by nearly 50 others all from as recently as this month. 

For the most part, the decision of what to do has been left up to individual school boards. Kalamazoo Public Schools, for instance, remains virtual while CC-C returned to in-person instruction. Some districts have been teaching in-person for a while now. 

“The whole COVID crisis has given the school board a new job description,” Port Huron Area School District board member Laurie Oldford told The ‘Gander. “That has definitely been something that any typical school board member would not anticipate. When you make the decision to run for school board you wouldn’t be thinking, ‘I’m going to be dealing with schools in the middle of a pandemic.’”

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Since the start of the pandemic, Oldford went from a retired teacher serving a few hours here and there advising her district to needing to understand public health and make decisions that could endanger lives or hinder educational success for her students. Even for someone like her, diligently attempting to be informed about what her district needs at any given time, the situation is not at all something she was prepared for. That’s the reality school boards have faced in the past year. 

“It really has been very exhausting,” Oldford admitted. “Many times it feels like I have a full-time job. Much of that was because of the pandemic. Typically I wouldn’t put as many hours in but it’s really been necessary.” 

She added with a laugh that she does this all unpaid. 

That filters down through the system to teachers, who don’t know day to day what the future holds. Kalamazoo’s Holly Bruning has felt very frustrated throughout the pandemic, not knowing what will come next and feeling like teachers have been left out of the decision-making process of setting state education policies.

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 “Teachers haven’t been asked how we feel about returning for one third of the year,” Bruning told The ‘Gander. “It’s frustrating to not know anything.”

Many school districts have had their plans change many times over this school year and even prepared for “rolling closures” throughout the school year. Kalamazoo, for instance, initially was preparing to resume in-person instruction in November only to have a surge in coronavirus cases lead them to keep instruction virtual through the end of the school year. 

But through the last year, teachers and school districts have endured. Through confusion and loss, they’ve continued to educate the next generation of Michiganders. That is a legacy worthy of Michelle McCrackin.