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Desperate schools turn to National Guard for testing help

Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard conduct free drive-thru COVID-19 testing, Alpena, Michigan June 19, 2020.
Master Sgt. David Eichaker/Michigan National Guard
Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard conduct free drive-thru COVID-19 testing, Alpena, Michigan June 19, 2020.

It’s not even October, and Roger Cole has already had to close two schools this year.

As superintendent of Morley Stanwood Community Schools, a small, rural community with just under 1,200 students in north-central Michigan, Cole made the “difficult decision” to temporarily close both the high school and the middle school by the third week of September.

By that point, there were 19 students with confirmed COVID (now it’s 34, according to the school dashboard, plus another 4 probable cases) and some 170 close contacts between the two schools.

“I will be very honest and frank with all of you,” Cole wrote in a letter to the school community on September 20. “For me to suggest that closing the schools down for a week will stop the problem would be dishonest.”

School COVID cases soar, and the stakes for quarantines feel high 

Morley Stanwood is in the same anxiety-ridden, ever-changing boat as countless other districts this year. As of September 20, K-12 schools were reporting the most outbreaks of any sector in the state, with 98 new ones that week and 218 outbreaks still ongoing, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“Each day, more than 315 children under age 12 become infected with COVID-19, 80 more children per day than last week,” the report stated.

Coming into the school year, Cole was desperately hoping to be able to keep kids in the building, rather than sending them home for the quarantine period. He keeps thinking about that 11-year-old boy in California who killed himself last December while in a zoom class.

“I worry about that greatly,” Cole said. “Because for a kid who was quarantined last year one or two times or more, God forbid, to realize that four kids from their class are missing because they're quarantining at home? I would imagine for a number of them there is this [feeling of] ‘I can't do that’ inside their head. ‘I can't do that again.’ And that worries me a lot.”

So the district put together a plan. If a student is a close contact and doesn’t want to quarantine, they can come to school during the 10-day quarantine period if they wear a mask, get their temperature taken daily, and don’t have any symptoms.

But by mid-September, it was clear their alternative quarantine plan wasn’t working.

“The majority of our students didn't know they were sick until they found out they were sick, and by then it was five days too late and they've been in and out of class,” he said. “And so many of our students who test positive are all asymptomatic. So you don't know you're spreading anything until you already have. And that just caught up to us, and we had to shut down for a week.”

Currently, Morley Stanwood doesn’t have a mask mandate. And Cole says even now, that’s unlikely to change. “I would lose an enormous number of students,” he said. “I like the idea that this is a choice parents get to make…[And] I’m surrounded by districts [without mandates] that are within a reasonable driving distance.”

With tests hard to find in some areas, the National Guard steps in 

There is another possible solution here: regular, rapid tests. Last year, Utah ran a statewide pilot program, using rapid COVID tests to monitor whole student bodies in schools that had reached outbreak “thresholds.” The tests were able to catch positive cases, researchers said, so fewer schools had to close and more students were able to stay in class. Illinois is now investing in its own statewide school testing program for schools. And in the United Kingdom, students are encouraged to perform at-home COVID tests twice a week.

But in parts of Michigan, just finding a COVID test isn’t easy right now. Cole said he’s had employees and families from the school have to drive 45 minutes to Mount Pleasant just to get tested.

“In Big Rapids, [the closest city,] they were just not available,” Cole said. “And I’ve had employees who’ve been able to get a test [but] it took four days. Some were 24 hours, others one to four days to get the results.”

So Cole found himself on the phone with Kevin Hughes, health officer of District Health Department #10, asking for help.

“Testing capacity is becoming somewhat limited in our county,” said Hughes. “Testing for the most part is limited to the health care systems and the hospitals. And they're either getting overwhelmed, or testing supplies are in short supply.”

You know, Hughes told Cole, we were going to get the Michigan National Guard out here to help do some testing and vaccinations - what if we sent them to you? It was worth a try, Cole said.

So Hughes got on the phone with the state health department, and soon they’d set up two drive-thru antigen testing events on September 20 and 22 at Morley Stanwood schools. They were open to the community, and run by Michigan National Guard members.

Troops will also be deploying to hold similar events for Mount Pleasant Public Schools, the state health department confirmed. Bay County Health Officer Joel Strasz said he’s hoping to get guard members in to help schools in that region, too. Strasz said some schools that are using serial testing as a quarantine alternative, have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of students who need to be tested.

“[The National Guard] are also assisting with routine testing [in other schools], however that outreach is ongoing and has not yet begun,” said Lynn Sutfin, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson, in an email.

A spokesperson for the Michigan National Guard deferred to MDHHS for comment.

Soldiers and airmen have deployed as “COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Teams” (CVTT) throughout the pandemic to long term care facilities, food banks, and health departments. But these events may mark a new phase: using troops to try to keep schools’ doors open.

“The extra bodies were great, it was nice having them there,” Cole said Friday. “It was nice to be able to thank them for their service.”

But now what?

“I still don’t know how you let 150 kids off the bus and get them tested before they went to class,” he said.

A couple hundred additional tests were dropped off earlier this week by the Intermediate School District. All but 20 of them were used in a single day. “[That was] just Tuesday. What do I do on Wednesday?”

Corrected: September 30, 2021 at 2:34 PM EDT
The original version of this post has been corrected, after the Michigan Department and Health and Human Services incorrectly stated that an average of 50 children were being hospitalized with COVID each day. On September 30, an MDHHS spokesperson issued an apology, and said the correct COVID pediatric hospital census is currently "averaging approximately 25 children per day."
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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