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Here's what the 12 biggest school districts are (and aren't) doing about COVID

young girl and boy with masks and backbacks on
Kelly Sikkena
Two of the biggest school districts in the state still aren’t requiring masks.

Two of the biggest school districts in the state still aren’t requiring masks. Only one major district is mandating staff vaccinations. And while Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest in Michigan with more than 1,000 teachers and 50,000 students, says it will do weekly COVID tests for teachers and students (with parent permission,) large-scale regular testing to screen for COVID-19 is still a rarity statewide.

Welcome to the 2021-2022 school year, in which any two schools can be practically next door but may have completely different COVID protocols. With no statewide mask mandates, and everything from ventilation to staff vaccinations left up to local choice, it can be hard for parents to keep track of what their own schools are doing to keep kids safe - much less how they compare to other districts.

Meanwhile, nearly every district is grappling with the realities of what their “social distancing” plan on paper actually looks like, in buildings where hundreds or thousands of students are constantly moving in and out of classrooms, chatting in hallways, eating in the cafeteria, and playing fall sports.

Michigan Radio asked the 12 largest school districts in the state (all with more than 10,000 students) about what experts say are the most critical mitigation measures. (If you’d like us to include your district, too, you can reach us at submissions@michiganradio.org.)

Here are some of the big takeaways:

Almost no one is requiring, or even tracking, staff vaccinations 

The endless battle over masks gets a lot of attention, but if you want to stop school outbreaks before they start, then more districts need to consider mandating vaccines for all teachers and employees, said Jon Zelner, a University of Michigan epidemiologist. He specializes in the social and biological impacts on infectious disease risk.

“To me, the biggest x factor is: How many routes of entry into the school are there for the COVID infection?” Zelner said. “So that really starts with, are the teachers and staff vaccinated?”

Schools can only control so much. They can’t make parents get vaccinated. And so far, there’s been little public discussion in Michigan aboutfollowing Los Angeles’lead and requiring eligible students get the COVID vaccine. But mandates for staff should be seriously considered, Zelner said. Especially true for adults who work with kids 12 and under, who aren’t eligible for vaccination yet: That’s a “concentrated population...of susceptible people” who need as much protection as possible.

Yet of the 12 districts Michigan Radio reached out to, only Ann Arbor Public Schools said it has a vaccine mandate for staff.

“As shared [with staff] in July, all staff and contractors who work in the AAPS are expected to provide proof of their full COVID-19 vaccination status or must agree to COVID test weekly during this school year,” said AAPS spokesperson Andrew Cluley. “This testing requirement began with the start of the school year.”

As of Sept. 10, about 94% of the more than 2,000 AAPS employees who’ve reported their status are fully vaccinated.

But most of the other districts said vaccines were a “personal choice.” Most were encouraging staffers to get their shots, with a few like Plymouth-Canton hosting in-school vaccination clinics.

Yet few are even tracking how many of their staff are actually vaccinated. Detroit said about 70% of staff are, and Dearborn Public Schools said they were around 75%. The rest said they didn’t know.

“This is all about the ways in which our actions impact the health and well-being of others, particularly children who may not be able to get vaccinated,” Zelner said. “So to me, it's a no-brainer that [these] things should be required, obviously with limited exemptions for people who just simply cannot receive them for health reasons. And you should have extensive testing for those people [who receive exemptions,] as much for their own protection as for everybody else.”

President Joe Biden’s recent federal mandate requiring vaccinations for workplaces with more than 100 employees doesn’t explicitly mention teachers, other than the 300,000 or so who work in federally-run schools or Head Start programs. And there’s still some uncertainty over whether, and if, OSHA’s upcoming guidance will impact teachers in states like Michigan. But the president is imploring more governors to require teacher vaccinations:

“In order to keep all children safely learning in school, the President’s plan calls for Governors to require vaccinations for teachers and school staff,” the White House statement said. “Currently, nine states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have vaccination requirements for K-12 school staff, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Washington.:

Here’s who is NOT doing universal masking 

By now, more than half of Michigan students attend schools where mask orders apply. That includes ten out of the state’s 12 biggest districts, either because the individual district is requiring them, or because the local health department has issued an order. The biggest exception: Macomb County, home to both the state’s second largest district, Utica Community Schools (with more than 26,000 students) and Chippewa Valley Schools (with just under 15,000 students.)

“While masks will be optional in our school buildings this fall, we strongly encourage ALL students, especially those that are not fully vaccinated, to wear a mask at school,” a Chippewa Valley Schools letter to parents said on August 26. “It is a federal mandate that masks be worn on school buses.”

“Utica Community Schools joins all major health agencies in strongly recommending that individuals wear face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” thedistrict’s superintendent Robert Monroe said. “For now, this is a personal choice for families as we closely monitor the impact of variants on our community.”

Monroe seemed to imply that could change, however.

“Let’s not wait for mandates to reduce the pandemic’s impact....We closely monitor mitigation and transmission levels. We will take action if COVID-19 continues to spread and impact our school environment.”

Testing efforts are … mixed 

While states like Utah and Illinois have embraced massive free, in-school testing, Michigan as a whole has made less of a push to get regular testing to every school that wants it. That’s left districts to try to chart their own paths, and the logistics for getting them the tests they need for school screening or monitoring close contacts is still being worked out.

The most ambitious so far is Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is pledging to roll out a massive, district-wide weekly testing effort.

“All employees will be required to do weekly COVID-19 testing, and students with parental consent,” a district spokesperson said this week. That’s regardless of vaccination status.

“Testing is the kind of thing that’s most effective when you’re ‘all in’ on it,” Zelner, the epidemiologist, said. “It certainly doesn’t make sense to do it … in a very spotty way. Honestly I think more testing can be good, particularly when you’re looking at a context of potentially high risk.”

But he cautioned against seeing any single mitigation effort as a solution for schools. Rather, you need a series of protections to “part of the arsenal.”

“We often have this conversation in terms of like, ‘This is the thing that will solve all the problems.’ And I think part of that is just a natural kind of human instinct … to like silver-bullet solutions.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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