By Ron French

West Michigan – School superintendents in West Michigan have a blunt message for their communities: Wear masks and social-distance, or schools buildings may have to close.

Alarmed by spiking COVID-19 cases, superintendents at 46 school districts in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties signed a joint letter to their communities this week pleading with residents to follow safety protocols that health officials say can help limit the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

The letter captures a growing frustration among school officials, who have instituted strict safety protocols from state and local health officials, but have been unable to keep coronavirus cases out of their classrooms.

“Unfortunately, the collective hard work of schools alone is not sufficient in controlling community spread of the coronavirus,” the letter says. “Public health experts report significant increases in positive cases across our state and region in recent weeks. Health officials cite that the rise in cases is largely due to a lack of safe practices – mainly distancing and mask wearing – in social settings and community gatherings.

“If cases continue to trend upwards, County Health Departments warn schools may be forced to implement additional restrictions to prevent continued infections. Restrictions may include cancellation, or other mitigation efforts, of extracurricular activities like athletics, band, choir and drama.

“As a worst case scenario, schools may be asked to shift to a distance learning instructional model either periodically or for an extended period of time until cases decline,” the letter warned.

The letter comes as Michigan is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, with West Michigan being one of the regions suffering a large spike.

Kent County, home of Grand Rapids, has the highest seven-day average of new cases in the state. Ottawa County currently has its highest rate of new cases per 100,000 people (21 new per day) since the pandemic struck Michigan in March. Muskegon County, the third county whose superintendents signed the letter, has comparatively modest COVID-19 rates, at 9 cases per 100,000 people.

“We are in a steady incline,” said Kristina Wieghmink, public information officer for the Ottawa County Health Department. “Cases are popping up all around the county, and many are associated with social gatherings.

“The concern is coming from when we have students outside of schools, mingling in the community, and the risk of picking up the virus and bringing it in the school,” Wieghmink said.

Students and staff in Michigan schools are required to wear face masks. Most students have the option of learning from home during the pandemic. And schools have been quick to ask students to stay home if they’ve been exposed to a classmate who has tested positive.

Still, there are new or ongoing outbreaks in 84 K-12 buildings, involving 435 confirmed cases among students and staff, according to the most recent state data released Monday. The number of schools dealing with outbreaks rose 25 percent Oct. 7-15.

In Michigan, local school districts are generally left to their own discretion on whether to open classrooms to students, conduct remote learning only, or some combination of the two, depending on the level of outbreaks and other circumstances in their communities.

Many Republican leaders, from President Trump to Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have urged school buildings to be opened during the pandemic.

Michael Shibler, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools in Kent County, said social gatherings outside of school that don’t include masks and social-distancing “threaten our ability to keep our doors open.”

Rockford started the school year online for two weeks before beginning in-person instruction. A month into face-to-face learning, Shibler moved grades 9-12 back to remote learning because of a COVID-19 outbreak. At least 17 students tested positive, and 416 students were placed in self-quarantine, out of about 2,400 students in those grades.

The students are scheduled to return to classrooms Monday, after being homebound for 10 school days, Shibler said.

“We’ve been working hard to follow the protocols set by the state health department and the local health department,” Shibler said. “And I believe the vast majority of our parents and students are following those protocols (outside of school). But we do have incidents in which students or families are not taking this seriously.”

Shibler said contact tracing shows that social gatherings outside of school brought COVID into schools, rather than school outbreaks spreading the virus to the community.

That matches the experience of contact tracers in Kent County.

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