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The Pandemic Isn’t Over — But Are Schools Over COVID Protocols?

Michigan parents and educators prepare for a fourth pandemic school year

A student at Detroit’s Thirkell School. (Ken Coleman)

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The days of state-mandated COVID-19 protocols in schools may be over, but parents and educators still want there to be some mitigation efforts so that the virus doesn’t wreak havoc on students during the fourth school year during the pandemic. 

Jennifer Tuksal, a parent and co-founder of Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MiPASS), a grassroot group of parents from across the state that advocate for COVID health rules, said they’re hoping schools improve their ventilation systems, track community spread to determine when students should be masked, encourage families to get vaccinated and be transparent about outbreaks. 

These recommendations “should be a no-brainer,” Tuksal said. 

However, the last few school years during the pandemic, which hit Michigan in March 2020, haven’t been so simple. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed down schools for in-person learning during the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

During the 2020-21 school year, there were big political clashes over initial statewide masking requirements, with Republican lawmakers opposing health guidance and districts that opted for virtual learning options. Many have also opposed vaccinations — which are not mandated by the state or federal government.

For the 2021-22 school year, there was no statewide mask mandate after Whitmer lifted it in June 2021, so counties and school districts had varied policies.

As of February, every county in Michigan had dropped their mask mandates for schools after the first omicron variant wave and the decision was left up to local school districts. 

Now, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is mostly taking on the role of monitoring the spread and making recommendations to local health departments. 

 Greg Childress/States Newsroom

“We continue to closely track case rates, hospitalizations and deaths when it comes to COVID-19 in Michigan,” said Lynn Sutfin, DHHS spokesperson. “Our local health department partners will continue to work closely with their school districts on any recommendations they should follow based on what is happening in their community.”

Sutfin said the state is expecting to see an increase in cases this fall when Michiganders “begin spending more time indoors due to colder temperatures, which is where the virus transmits more easily.”

But Tuksal said she wishes the state would be the one to roll out mandates, rather than school districts where she believes local politics play too large a role in district decisions. 

“Leaving it up to  the local levels hasn’t worked out very well, depending on what county you live in. So for continuity, I think it should come down from the state,” Tuksal said. “But it should never take an actual mandate to get our schools and our school districts to do the right thing, though. They should want to do the best they can for the kids in the schools.”

Thomas Morgan, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association (MEA) said the educators’ union believes COVID-19 decisions should be made at the local school level, guided by health experts and include input by school employees. 

“As we go into the new school year, we need to make sure that health and safety is a top priority when these local decisions are made,” Morgan said.  “We need to make sure these aren’t political decisions, but instead are decisions driven by science, by data and with the best interests of our kids in mind.”

Though life has resumed to a pre-COVID normal for many, the virus is still spreading in the state. 

As of July 12, the state reported 2.6 million total COVID-19 confirmed and probable cases, as well as 37,142 confirmed and probable COVID-19 related deaths. 

 Scott Olson/Getty Images

However, what makes this upcoming school year different from the previous school years during the pandemic is how readily available vaccines are for people as young as 6 months old. 

“With a vaccine now authorized for some of our youngest residents, our hope is that we will see less cases and hospitalizations, so schools don’t see as many quarantines or missed school days,” said Sutfin.

The state recommends that every K-12 Michigan student should receive the COVID-19 vaccine and children ages 5 and up are also eligible for a booster dose at least five months after finishing their initial vaccine series.  

About 68% of Michigan’s population has one or more doses of the vaccine, putting it in the bottom half of state vaccination rates, and about 61% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated.

Tuksal said she is mostly concerned about the BA.5 variant, which is the leading variant in the country right now and extremely contagious, even for people who are vaccinated and have antibodies. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated two-thirds of cases in the Midwest are believed to be BA.5.

After focusing largely on masking and vaccinations last school year, two issues that were very divisive in Michigan, Tuksal said MiPASS is pushing for improved ventilation in schools for this upcoming school year.

 Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

“That is something I think a lot of people can get on board with,” Tuksal said. “Not only does it help reduce transmission of COVID, but it will also help reduce the transmission of other germs, like the flu, colds and helps the kids with asthma and allergies, as well. And it’s something that can be done quite affordably.”

Along with mitigation efforts, parents and educators hope to see that COVID-19 outbreak tracking efforts continue.

The state plans to start reporting weekly COVID-19 school outbreaks once the school year starts back up, which Tuksal said is helpful. 

But she wants to see greater transparency and reporting at the local school level. 

“We need data and transparency. Schools need to be open about what is going on in the schools and communicate it to parents, allowing them to be empowered to make the right decisions for their children,” Tuksal said. “If we don’t know what’s going on in the schools, if we don’t know what the transmission is in schools, then you take away our ability and our right to make decisions for our children based on our individual circumstances.”

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