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College students make up vast majority of school outbreaks, with 1,400 cases reported statewide

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
GVSU currently has the largest COVID outbreak of any Michigan school.

At least 1,412 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed as part of new or ongoing outbreaks across 27 schools, according to data released by the state for the first time on Monday.

The vast majority of outbreaks (defined as two or more cases with shared exposure on school grounds) are among college students, who account for 20 of the total reported outbreaks and 1,370 of all school cases. (Two of the colleges, Adrian College and Calvin University, said their outbreaks included staff as well as students, but those numbers weren’t broken down.)

Grand Valley State University had the dubious distinction of the most reported cases, with 438 students. Central Michigan University reported 271 cases, and Adrian College - which has just under 1,800 students - reported 229 cases.

The rest of the reported outbreaks were among six preschools and elementary schools, four high schools, and just one each among middle schools and university graduate students.

“If your child’s school is listed, your local health department and school are investigating and will contact you directly if you or your child was possibly exposed to coronavirus at school,” the state said in a statement Monday. “Please note that students or staff who were exposed to COVID-19 outside of the school grounds AND are not thought to have spread the disease in the school grounds (due to quarantine, self-isolation, etc.) are not included in the data below.”

The data is also likely an undercount, given that individual cases (not part of an outbreak) don’t have to be reported by the state, and that some areas are only testing people with symptoms and/or a known exposure to the virus.

“Many factors, including the lack of ability to conduct effective contact tracing in certain settings, may result in underreporting of outbreaks,” the state says on its data page. “This information does not provide a complete picture of school outbreaks in Michigan and the absence of identified outbreaks in a school in no way provides evidence that, in fact, that school is not experiencing an outbreak.”

The news comes just a week after most students went back to school, and as parents, teachers, and health officials are anxiously navigating virtual, in-person, or hybrid learning. Currently, at least 58 public school districts have some in-person option available to students, according to an analysis of data collected by Bridge Magazine. And while 61 districts are currently online, the vast majority of them say they hope to offer an in-person option sometime later this fall.

The state was already publishing a running tally of how many outbreaks were being reported at K-12 schools, colleges/universities and child care facilities. But other than the number and the region of the state where the outbreak occurred, parents couldn’t learn which schools, exactly, were experiencing outbreaks until now. (A coalition of Michigan media submitted a letter to Governor Whitmer on September 1, pushing for the state to “compile and publicly release, on a consistent ongoing basis, vital public information regarding school related COVID outbreaks.”)

Now the state says it will continue to publish a weekly list of schools experiencing outbreaks, including their names, addresses, the number of cases, and if the cases involved staff, students or both.

But the information will likely be dated by the time it goes live on the state website: schools will supply outbreak information to the local public health department for the week, and the health department will then send it to the state. But the state won’t publish that information until at least three days later on Monday.

And it’s still unclear what exactly schools are required to tell students and families about COVID-19 cases at their schools: do schools have to immediately alert them about any outbreak, or only if their student has a known, prolonged exposure to an infected person? And what if there’s only one positive case?

Wheaton didn’t respond to requests for clarification.

The state’s “Safe Schools Roadmap” guidelines “strongly recommend” schools immediately notify staff and students “of any possible case of COVID-19 while maintaining confidentiality consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other applicable federal and state privacy laws.”

That’s where things get murky. The guidance goes on to say:

“Schools should provide staff with guidance on confidentiality laws and statutes that protect student and staff health information. Student communicable disease related information is protected health information. (Even if a family/ student acknowledges and publicly discloses a positive test, school staff and officials must not participate in discussions or acknowledge a positive test).”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
Brad Gowland joined Michigan Radio in 2019 to help with the station's growing digital side, specializing in data collection and digital audio.
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