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Kent County schools see spike in cases, as districts adapt to outbreaks

Back of a school bus


Schools in Kent County reported more new COVID-19 outbreaks this week than those in any other county, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That includes 18 cases in Kent County pre-K-12 schools, and another six among students at Kuyper College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids. 

To compare, Macomb County schools saw the second-highest number of new outbreaks this week, with the three new outbreaks adding a total of just seven cases.

The weekly state data(which gets reported by local health departments to MDHHS the week prior, before being published on Mondays) comes just days after the Kent County Health Department warned of a “dramatic” rise in cases “in all age groups.” 

While the majority of those cases aren’t connected to schools, the “numbers of people testing positive that are related to schools is rising [sic],” county health officer Adam London said in a Friday bulletin. “Our middle school and high school numbers are significantly higher than the elementary numbers.  The rate of positive cases in elementary age children is about half of the rate for people age 12-17 years (both nationally and in Kent County)."

“Through our contact tracing, we are seeing very limited transmission of the virus from the classroom setting. Most of the new infections among students can be traced to social activities and sports activities.”

London referenced earlier state guidance that “virtual schools should be considered,” while again emphasizing that “to this point there has been limited transmission within schools.” 

“We will reassess our guidance if incidence continues to rise or we see greater evidence of in-school transmission,” London said. 

On Monday, Grand Rapids Public Schools announced it will remain fully virtual, at least through the end of the year, canceling plans to introduce a hybrid learning model starting next week. 

“We have said all along that the science and data will drive our decision making,” district officials said in a press release.“The reality is the data is headed in the wrong direction for Kent County and the back and forth with potential closings will be more disruptive than just staying virtual now.”

In total, 27 schools reported new outbreaks this past week, for a total of 99 cases. That doesn’t include schools (both pre-K-12 and college) with “ongoing” outbreaks, defined as “those that had already been identified in previous weeks but have had at least one new associated case reported to the local health department in the last 28 days.”

Monday’s updates bring the state’s reported totals to 445 cases at pre-K-12 schools, and 5,368 at higher education institutions. Michigan State University reported more than 1,600 total cases, with Grand Valley State University reporting 922 total cases, plus 836 total cases at the University of Michigan.

But the number of students and staff who’ve contracted COVID is likely higher, because the weekly outbreak data don’t include those “who were exposed to COVID-19 outside of school grounds AND are not thought to have spread the disease on the school grounds,” according to MDHHS.

Other districts on the outbreak list also said they had little evidence of transmission within pre-K-12 schools, and that contact tracing pointed to social gatherings as the primary source of cases. 

“So they're at a bonfire or a fall party or a family gathering, and they're contracting it from grandma or aunt and uncle or whatever,” says Ben Mainka, the superintendent of Swartz Creek Community Schools. 

The suburb of about 5,500 residents just outside of Flint has seen outbreaks at both an elementary school and the high school. According to the district’s onlinedashboard, a total of nine staff and 16 students have tested positive for COVID so far this school year, with 140 individuals currently quarantined – 405 have been quarantined overall.

“We have three or four of our cases that are students that are fully online; they've never been here at all,” Mainka says. Still, as cases ticked up and the number of students and teachers in quarantine increased, the district is trying to adapt. K-5 students will now be required to wear masks in classrooms, Mainka announced last week. Previously they only had to wear them in common areas.

And while the district is offering three learning options – fully virtual, hybrid, or fully face-to-face – the high school building was shut down last week through this Monday.  

“Sometimes we have to just call time out, and say, ‘We're going to be able to shift to an online modality pretty quickly,’” Mainka says. “The health department calls that reducing density. And so what they mean by that is just keeping the number of students at a more dispersed [distance from each other] so that you don't have as many kids together in one location.”

“...We have to think about, OK, can we avoid passing times for kids [in the hallways?] Can we shift a little bit and say, maybe we're going to go to everybody just coming in a hybrid schedule? Or what we did in this case is say, you know what, we're going to shift to an online modality...And when we come back on Tuesday, we hit the ground running. So the idea is, I think it's going to be more the norm during this time.” 


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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