As Michigan begins to experience its first snowfalls of the season, school leaders tackling labor shortages in their neighborhoods face another conundrum: what to do with the flu season, which began at the same time as the significant spike in COVID-19 cases.
Michigan had more new cases per capita in seven days last week than any other state, according to the CDC. School districts have responded in different ways, reverting to a combination of distance and face-to-face education or making harsh decisions to cancel classes altogether – sometimes ahead of time, sometimes without much notice.
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Since the outbreak of influenza at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the county has also seen an increase in influenza diagnoses, according to the Washteno County Health Department. Between October 6 and November 15, officials at the University of Michigan reported 528 cases of influenza, prompting a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to travel to Michigan to investigate. Influenza A was identified as the predominant strain, and 77 percent of these cases were in people who were not vaccinated against influenza.
“While we often start seeing some flu activity now, the magnitude of this outbreak is unusual,” said Juan Luis Marquez, medical director of the Vashteno County Health Department. “This outbreak does not necessarily have an immediate impact on the wider local population, but raises concerns about what the flu season might bring.”
Noting the rise in respiratory diseases and the infectivity of the current Delta variant COVID-19 outbreak, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) last week issued a public health recommendation for people to wear face masks in public areas regardless of vaccinations. status; for public establishments, apply camouflage policies and encourage compliance; and for people who are incompletely vaccinated or immunocompromised to avoid large crowds or crowds.
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For example, Ann Arbor public schools have decided to close the entire week of Thanksgiving rather than taking the usual three holiday holidays. “We just have a skyrocketing rise in cases,” said Janice Swift, county superintendent, noting that both vaccinated teachers and children aged 5-11 get sick.
At least 25 other Michigan school districts have done the same this week following the outbreak of the virus, while counties were already experimenting with school calendars.
Michigan schools include six days a year in their schedules, which they can skip or cancel. These are usually days with heavy snowfall and are called “snow days”. However, as schools can now switch to distance learning in the event of heavy snow, they have more opportunities to “pass” these days should they face a severe teacher shortage. This is a careful calculation that also takes into account the requirement for each school to have 75 percent of students attending school on any given day. If the school is not gaining that kind of attendance, that day will not be considered an official school day and they will not receive funding for it.
In a letter to parents at the Ann Arbor Swift School District, he wrote that the week-long break would allow the school district to interrupt transmission of COVID-19 and allow sick students and staff to recover. It will also help schools cope with anticipated staff shortages in a week when there are usually fewer replacement teachers, even though replacement teacher salaries have already doubled this semester.
At Southfield public schools in a suburb north of Detroit, instruction has been shifted to four days a week with full-time instruction and one day a week with distance learning in all 15 schools from November 5 to February 4, the height of the flu. season in Michigan. The move will allow many students and teachers to participate in school, but also remain isolated when unsure if they have the flu or COVID-19, or when they need to be quarantined.
This combination of face-to-face and distance learning helps the school district cope with both labor shortages and its ability to deeply clean classrooms with electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet rays. “We fought with the replacement of teachers. “We have struggled with adequate support services for bus drivers, caretakers, security and food service, in addition to national supply chain issues,” said Jennifer Greene, head of Southfield Public Schools.
“This allowed our students to have five full days of study. This allowed us to use our support staff in such a way that on Fridays there are more people at our facilities for deep cleaning. So our security guards, bus drivers, our food service, they could work as part of the guardianship team on Fridays, since they did not provide services to the students, ”she added.
The district has also tried to improve the recruitment and support of substitute teachers by expanding staff incentives such as access to the family vaccination clinic for substitute teachers and creating a “Relief Center” that allows all substitute teachers to gather in one place on Fridays so that the technical team can support them. in their remote classes.
“Having them in one place gives us the opportunity to use their schedules where, like the teacher usually has a planning period, this substitute during this planning period could potentially go and cover another class, because they are all in the same room in the same same time, – she said.
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One of the unexpected benefits of this revised timetable is that families can finally come to class, albeit remotely, and see what their students are learning.
“At the start of the school year, we made a conscious decision to keep everyone outside of our facility who didn’t have to come to our facility to reduce the spread,” Green said. “It also meant that our parents could not come to our schools and teach their students the way they used to. This distant Friday gives our families a peek into the classroom to see what our scientists are learning. ” The school also encourages and helps parents to volunteer or apply for jobs in the playground, cafeteria, or as substitute teachers.
But the best way to help schools right now, Greene said, is to follow directions from the health department and the CDC, as well as be mindful of other mitigation measures, such as wearing masks, washing hands, and staying within your bladder to protect children. and in the classroom.
According to the AAPS COVID-19 Case Dashboard, 42 percent of the 76 new COVID-19 cases detected in the school district last week occurred among students aged 5 to 11 who, until recently, were unable to get vaccinated. About one-third of these new COVID-19 cases occurred among teachers, employees and contractors, three times the number in the previous week and more than double the number in any previous week during the pandemic. This increase in new cases of COVID-19 comes as the county and state experience a similar increase, as well as an outbreak of influenza.
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At 100 schools in the Detroit Public Schools District (DPSCD), the largest school district in Michigan, schools will close for another two days a week of Thanksgiving and move to four days of personal instruction and one day of distance learning for three. Friday in December. About a dozen schools have switched to remote schools at some point since the start of the school year, but this district-wide shift is a response to COVID-19 outbreaks, teacher and staff concerns about classrooms needing more thorough cleaning, staff shortages, and mental health problems. help.
“This work is already hard enough because of the socio-economic status and concentration of our students, mainly because of the poverty and history of racial injustice that occur day after day in our schools,” Vitti said. “And that only complicates the day-to-day teaching and leadership work. The exacerbation of this disease is COVID, and even more so, the fact that children do not go to school for a year and a half. We must understand that our third graders have not gone to school since kindergarten, that our 10th graders have never gone to high school. ”
The big difference for Detroit schools is that all students, teachers and staff are tested for COVID-19 once a week with a saliva test. This allows the school to timely detect all cases of COVID-19, including asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. The schools also hired 100 contract nurses, one at each school, to help with testing and caring for sick students, and an additional 100 primary school teachers.
“Here in Detroit, COVID is very real,” Vitti said. “But the only way to get our kids back to school and get our staff back to school this year is to get tested even after being vaccinated. And so the positive thing is that we are very transparent about COVID. But the downside is that we identify COVID. And that means more quarantine. ”
So far, around 5,000 students have been quarantined at some point, with individual students and sometimes entire schools moving to distance learning, which Vitti says disrupts learning and is not sustainable over the long term.
The way forward, Vitti said, lies in vaccinations and possibly a vaccination mandate, and he hopes Michigan lawmakers will not politicize this public health issue. According to him, in Detroit, the vaccination rate for teachers is about 70 percent, for the community – about 70 percent, for adolescents – about 20 percent. It is just beginning to be available for children from 5 to 11 years old.
“The benefits of the vaccine are more recognized among teenage students,” Vitti said. “Now the moment comes when they want to go to school. They don’t want to be online. They don’t want to be quarantined. They want to play sports all the time. They want to return to their homeland. And they see that their life is not returning to normal, even though they are in school. They are pretty much tired of wearing masks and are taking a lot of initiative to come back. ”