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Schools, health officials are bracing for a spring break COVID spike

Lukas Souza via Unsplash.com

Please don't travel over Spring Break this year. And no matter what, get tested before you come back to class. That's the message from school administrators and health experts across Michigan this week, amidst a statewide surge in cases.

More than 60 new school-related COVID-19 outbreaks were reported on Monday. That's on top of an additional 181 K-12 school outbreaks already being monitored,  leaving many scrambling to get out in front of a potential break-related case spike.

With many Michigan schools either coming back from, or heading into, break this week, the state health department’s rolling out a series of pop-up COVID-19 testing clinicsin hopes of catching outbreaks before they start.

Starting April 3, dozens of free, rapid-testing clinics will be open to educators, students, and community members, before class resumes in their districts.

“Students and families traveling across Michigan, to other states, or out of the country risk bringing COVID-19 with them,” according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website. “This in turn may fuel outbreaks within their households and the communities they visit, and reintroducing COVID-19 to the community when they return.”

In announcing the testing program earlier this week, MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel said the “goal is to loosen restrictions while reducing public health risk,” even as cases across the state have surged in recent weeks. “We are also increasing testing in key populations to help identify cases more quickly, and help prevent additional spread of the virus.”

But already the rise in cases has caused alarm. This week, the Grand Rapids Public Schools district announced it would pause earlier plans to expand to in-person learning from two to four days a week. That was slated to happen April 12, the first day after break, but will get pushed back a week, as Michigan Radio previously reported.

“Based on the increased numbers of COVID-19 cases in Kent County, and the upcoming spring break, the Kent County Health Department is advising districts to implement additional mitigation strategies for the week immediately following spring break,” said GRPS superintendent Leadriane Roby, in a video update posted online.

And the superintendent of Kenowa Hills Public School (which serves about 3,000 students in the greater Grand Rapids area) warned in a March 26 letter that more than 140 students and one staff member were currently quarantined, with another 16 students and one staff member recently testing positive.

“If this trend continues, I am concerned we will need to return to a hybrid schedule, especially at the middle and high school levels where the impact of positive COVID cases has had the greatest impact,” said Superintendent Gerald Hopkins. “I am also concerned end-of-year celebrations may be impacted again this school year if the COVID metrics continue to climb…

“...While the upcoming break will help us reset mentally and physically, there is heightened concern spring break travel will exacerbate the spread of COVID. The CDC has published this guidance for those who are traveling over spring break. The Kent County Health Department strongly recommends those who travel on a plane or out of the area to quarantine for a week following their return.”

But health officials in Ingham County flat out discouraged any traveling during break.

“We understand that people are ready to get back to normal and sart traveling again,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. “However, COVID-19 cases are surging in our county. Health experts across the country are gravely concerned about what we may see following spring break. Delaying travel is the safest course of action. If travel is not avoidable, testing and quarantine are strongly encouraged.”

Some districts, including Detroit Public Schools Community District, announced they’ll return to online learning for the week after break.

“Please be advised that all students, including those who have been attending the Learning Centers, will be served online next week starting April 5th. This is to allow employees and students a week of social isolation after Spring Break to limit the spread of COVID-19. Employees returning to buildings will receive a negative test before in person learning is started. Please reach out to your school’s principal or teacher if you have questions or concerns.”

Since the pandemic began last year, state health officials say more than 76,000 K-12 students and educators have been tested in more than 500 districts, and a student-athlete testing program begins today.

“This testing program is vital to ensure school can remain open and students are able to be in the classroom,” health officials said in a statement earlier this week. “Free post-spring break testing pop up sites are planned for school districts in 34 communities. Testing sites at Welcome Centers and Michigan airports are in the works for returning travelers.”

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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