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As more schools close, who gets left behind?

Mladen Borisov for Unsplash


For one elementary school teacher, it feels like “the wheels are coming off the bus.” 

It was around the third week of school when her coworker, a fellow teacher at Dieck Elementary in the Flint suburb of Swartz Creek, tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was kind of like, ‘Oh crap,’” this teacher says. (She asked that her name not be used in order to protect her job.) “We expected that at some point we’d deal with infections, but it was pretty much right away... [That first teacher] was very young, but she was quite sick. They quarantined the entire class. The parents came in and picked up their kids throughout the day as the news spread.”

About a week later, this Dieck teacher went to pick up her class from the “specials” room, only to find that teacher was gone now, too. “Someone was filling in who wasn’t even a teacher…[The specials teacher] got her test results while she was teaching and immediately left the building.”

Then came a text from her partner teacher, saying she was in urgent care with a 102 degree fever. A few days later, the principal called: the partner teacher had tested positive. Because they’d been in close contact for lesson planning, the Dieck teacher needed to quarantine, too. 

Soon, the district closed Dieck Elementary for a couple days of deep cleaning; a development this teacher says she learned from a parent, who emailed to ask when the next day’s lessons would be available online. Then, as cases rose at the high school, that building shut down temporarily, too. 

When the year began, this teacher recalls, she’d never seen so many smiling faces so thrilled to be back at school. Her class formed a tight little bubble, eating breakfast and lunch together in their room and having their own recess period, part of the district’s efforts to reduce crowds.   

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
The empty parking lot at Swartz Creek High School. With so many students quarantined and cases ticking up, the school shut down for a little over a week. Most of the cases are coming from social gatherings outside of school, the superintendent says.

But now parents call and text at all hours, whenever they get a notice about a new case. They ask if she’s the one who’s sick, or whether it’s a kid in her class. When she had to go into quarantine a second time, one of her students burst into tears from sheer anxiety, a parent told her. 

“So far, things have been really rough,” the Dieck teacher says. Lately, she  finds herself wondering: did she make the wrong choice in coming back to teach in person? “There are a lot of questions and no answers.” 

So far, evidence points to “low transmission” levels within schools 

The irony here is, schools probably aren’t the source of most of the cases that come through their doors. While it’s impossible to know the extent to which COVID spreads in school without comprehensive testing of staff and students, and especially as younger children may be less likely to have COVID symptoms, early evidence points to private social gatherings as the larger culprit. 

“The one thing that we have noticed as we've kind of been looking at this, is that we have little to no evidence of transmission [within the school buildings],” says Swartz Creek superintendent Ben Mainka.

Long ago, in the simpler times of 2019, Mainka’s job included singing snow day announcements. Now, on a cloudless October Friday, he sits in the sun-filled lobby of the high school’s performing arts center. The halls, the parking lots, the immaculate football field; everything is silent and empty, save for a few construction crews.  

Yet despite the high school’s week-long closure, cases in the Swartz Creek school district have actually been pretty contained. With just under 4,000 students, only 16 students and nine teachers are recorded as testing positive on the district’s online dashboard. And two of those had been doing school virtually.

In talking with the local health department, Mainka says, it looks like most cases were primarily coming from group gatherings. 

“So they’re at a bonfire, or they’re at a fall party. Or they’re contracting it from grandma or an aunt or uncle, or whatever. So you might look and say, ‘Oh, wow, there's 14 student cases at the high school, they must have some significant issues with transmission.’ It's actually not the case. You could say the safest place for someone to be right now, is in school. Because outside of school, they may not have the same mitigation measures,” says Mainka.

Still, in places like Kent County, the “numbers of people testing positive that are related to schools is rising [sic],” 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,” London said. “Most of the new infections among students can be traced to social activities and sports activities.”

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
The high school football field at Swartz Creek.

“By and large, our schools have been really good about responding immediately to problems,” says Marcus Cheatham, health officer of the Mid-Michigan Health Department. “So I haven't been concerned about the behavior of the school; I’m concerned about the pandemic. That's my problem. The situation seems to be changing in the state.” 

A hard year gets even more challenging 

As cases in the state reach record highs – with an average of 131 new daily cases per million recorded on October 13, compared with the previous high of 128 per million on April 1 – schools are under increasing pressure to respond. 

As it is, the stress and complexity of this school year is unprecedented. Districts like Swartz Creek offer three different options for families – virtual, face-to-face, and a hybrid option – with about 60% of students opting for face-to-face. According to a state analysis done in August, only 12% of Michigan’s public schools said they were planning to have all instruction take place remotely. The rest were planning to offer at least some level of face-to-face instruction.

So even on “normal” days, high schoolers may have schedules that look like a college student’s, Mainka says. Their first and second periods may be online, while third and fourth hours are hybrid.

“So they only come to those classes twice a week, and maybe they’re the Monday and Tuesday cohort. So they come Monday and Tuesday [to those classes] but then they're in band and also AP Chemistry, which means they need to meet face-to-face. So they're coming every single day for those classes in fifth and sixth hour in the afternoon. And then Wednesday through Friday when they don't have their hybrid classes, they only come to school fifth and sixth hour. The rest of their stuff is done online. That is an incredibly complicated system to run and manage.”

And that’s without taking the impact of mass quarantines into account. Despite having only 16 confirmed cases, more than 400 Swartz Creek students and staff members have already had to quarantine this fall. 

“It's really the quarantines that kill the schools, not the cases,” Cheatham says. “Because you can have two people, one person infects another, in school... But if they expose 100 people, you’ve got 100 people quarantined. And then you can’t keep school open, because of the quarantines. Because they just might not have the bodies.”

Still, as cases in the state rise, even those crowd mitigation techniques may not be enough. Mainka says families need to prepare for schools to keep going back and forth between in-person and online-only. 


“I think it's going to be more the norm that during this time, during the pandemic, we have to be prepared for [that],” he says. “It may just happen that, if we're looking at the data in consultation with the health department, we say, ‘We need to take a break.’ And so that's what we're doing right now. And, you know, most of our kids, most of our staff, they're just taking it in stride.” 

Who gets left behind?  

For Cheatham, the health officer for the Mid-Michigan Health Department, Michigan’s case curve doesn’t bode well for in-person learning. 

“So now I’m worried about every school, every business,” he says. “Because we’re getting into higher and higher risk categories, and we could be looking at a really bad situation if the current trends continue. It would raise the question of whether schools should be open at all. I kind of don’t want you to say that, because then teacher's unions in my districts call their superintendent and say, ‘We want you to shut the school down.’ And then superintendents call me and say, ‘Thanks.’” 

Already, Grand Rapids Public Schools announced it was canceling plans for a hybrid learning model and staying fully virtual through the end of the year. But Mainka, the Swartz Creek superintendent, says the choice isn’t that simple.  

“Some of our kids that come from poverty, they come from home environments that are not so good,” Mainka says. “And so everybody's concerned about COVID, right? So it's all about ‘Well, it's just not safe. We've got to close school down. We've got to keep people away. We can't have people come.’ That may be true for a lot of kids, but for some of our kids, it's significantly more dangerous and damaging for them to be at home. And this is the safest place they could be.”

And for some students, virtual learning just doesn’t work. R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent of Novi Community School District, says they’ve been gathering data during these first six weeks of the school year. 

“The learning loss that has occurred from the pandemic is fairly striking, especially in areas of mathematics,” he says. “And why that makes sense is because, if you think about it, I have a son, and I could easily put a book in his hand and I knew he was reading during the pandemic [when all schools closed in the spring.] But as far as math instruction, maybe I would get him on a platform once in a while, but I didn't have the ability to teach. So I just let that go.

“And really what we’re saying now is, how do we help our kids kind of stabilize and feel okay with that learning loss, so to speak? And as parents, how do we systematically support their learning and their retention of what they did know?”

A new kind of wealth gap 

In districts that aren’t offering any kind of in-person learning, private schools have become a solution for parents who can afford it. Lena Kauffman, a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, says her older daughters are doing middle and high school virtually; the only option Ann Arbor Public Schools are currently offering. But they enrolled their son, the youngest, in private school this year. 

“[What] I knew about my son from the spring experience, he would not be able to do that [learning] independently on his own. He was too young. And so what I was hoping from the schools was that they would take the same approach: ‘OK, these are the students that most need face-to-face learning because, you know, a kindergartner can only get so much from a Zoom call.’”

Like Kauffman, Dr. Avi Derrow says he pulled both his kids out of Ann Arbor public schools this year, so they could attend a private school that was offering face-to-face instruction. He, Kauffman, and other parents in the district have formed “Ann Arbor Reasonable Return”which defines itself as “a grassroots advocacy group” pushing for “a risk-balanced and reasonable approach to resuming in-person learning for students who need and want this choice.” 

“There are so many families that don’t have that option [of private school],” Kauffman says.

“If we're going to keep the public schools closed, in a sense, are we also expanding inequities in our community? Because Dr. Derrow and I can send our kids to a private school. I sent one, he sent both his children. That's further expanding those inequities. And that's another huge cost that needs to be taken into account.” 

If more public schools do return to fully remote learning, that could be especially difficult for parents who can’t afford to stay home from work, experts say. And it’s still unclear exactly how much risk would be mitigated by keeping children home.

“Kids don't magically disappear the minute that they're out of school,” Kauffman says. “They have to go somewhere. A lot of the parents that we're hearing from, that somewhere is in a childcare center, with low paid childcare workers, sitting in on the Zoom call, with all the risk of community spread. And all the risk to the employees there, and none of the benefits of in-person learning from a trained educator. 

“We also have a lot of members in this group who have had to make the difficult choice of breaking isolation with the grandparents, and putting the kids with the grandparents during the day.”

R.J. Webber, the assistant superintendent in Novi, says whatever decision schools make, they’re finding themselves the target of a politically polarized debate. 

“Certain parents are actually showing up at school board member's houses when they're on a Zoom call for the meeting, to show their displeasure,” Webber says. “And if you're not really strong and resolute, my concern is then just that type of invective, could contribute to decisions that may very well be harmful to children.”

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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