The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services [MDHHS] recently announced new measures for schools to keep students, staff, and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic while safely offering in-person instruction soon, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during a press conference today.
“Every parent deserves to know that their child will be safe and learning in the classroom. Every educator and every member of our schools’ support staff deserves to know that they are safe at work,” Whitmer said.
“On top of testing and vaccinations, we will work with districts to ensure that when schools begin in-person learning safety protocols remain in place,” Whitmer added at the press conference.”So many of our educators and teachers … are looking forward to getting the vaccine.”
The state plans to have all Michigan school districts offer an in-person learning option for students no later than March 1, and earlier if available.
Good practices to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread when schools reopen still include:
- Wearing masks
- Building ventilation improvements
- Frequent hand washing
- Social distancing
Teachers and other school staff are slated to start receiving the new COVID-19 vaccine by January 11 as the next batch of essential frontline workers in line.
“MDHHS will continue to do what it takes to save lives and limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Director Robert Gordon said in a press release. “At the same time, in-person instruction is critical for the current and the future well-being of children, especially young learners and students who are disadvantaged. We encourage schools to reopen as soon as they can do so with proven protections for staff and students.”
Whitmer added that the value of in-person learning for “our kids is immeasurable.”
“We must do everything we can to help them get a great education safely,” Whitmer said. “Over the last 10 months, medical experts and epidemiologists have closely followed the data and have learned that schools can establish a low risk of transmission by ensuring that everyone wears a mask and adopting careful infection prevention protocols. I also announced this week that educators and support staff will be eligible for the next phase of COVID vaccinations beginning Jan. 11 to help protect them and their families as they return to work. I strongly encourage districts to provide as much face-to-face learning as possible, and my administration will work closely with them to get it done.”
These plans are applicable for grades pre-kindergarten through 12 and include early childhood education, such as Head Start and Great Start Readiness Program.
Also, mask policies include wearing them:
- Inside schools by all staff and students, except during meals and in other limited circumstances.
- Face masks may be made of cloth or maybe disposable surgical-style masks.
Other infection control measures in the new MDHHS guidance include:
- When possible, assigning children to cohort groups and limiting their interactions to their cohorts to reduce the number of contacts.
- Keeping children six feet apart from one another to the extent feasible, making creative use of school spaces to facilitate distancing.
- Providing enough hand sanitizing supplies and reinforcing proper handwashing techniques.g
- Having staff and students conduct self-screenings for symptoms at home every day before going to school.
- Ensuring school plans are in place in coordination with their local health department if there are any positive COVID-19 tests.
- Having staff and students who either test positive or are close contacts of those who test positive follow the guidance issued by MDHHS as well as local health departments. Anyone who is considered a close contact of someone who tests positive but does not have symptoms should quarantine for 10 days under CDC guidance.
Additional recommendations can be found in the State of Michigan Guidelines for Operating Schools Safely on Michigan’s Schools COVID Testing website.
In November, MDHHS paused in-person learning in high schools as part of an order to limit indoor gatherings to address an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths and in hospital occupancy rates.
After case numbers decreased, high schools were permitted to resume in-person classes effective Dec. 21.
MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said that as of today, there have been 512,751 cases of COVID-19 and 4,015 deaths.
The case rate is 222 cases per million people — an increase of eight cases per million from recent data.
Positivity rates are at 9.3%; on December 27 the positivity was lower at 8.2%.
Khaldun added that a downward trend can be seen with the 12.8% of available inpatient beds in comparison to a higher number previously, but she’s still leaning on the cautious side.
“Our metrics overall tell me that we are at a pivotal moment. The declines we were seeing prior to the holidays seem to be reversing and I’m concerned that there were gatherings over the winter holidays and we’re starting to see the results of that,” Khaldun said. “I’m concerned it’s only a matter of time that we see a new variant of this virus in Michigan that originated in the UK and caused a dangerously [high number of] new cases.”
She added that the new variant transmits more easily — but steps can be taken now if someone traveled recently to slow the spread.
“Even if you traveled over the holidays you can be quarantined at home for 10 days,” she said adding if people know they have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 or know someone has symptoms they should get tested.
She added that she knows how difficult it has been for all during the time schools were closed.
“As a parent, I know how hard it has been to not have children engaged in in-person learning,” Khaldun said, adding that remote learning can have negative impacts on student’s academic achievements, their mental health and it’s overall challenging for parents who “have to figure out how to work and take care of children who are home all day.”
Khaldun added that MDHHS wants every school district to be working with their health department to identify the safest way possible to provide in-person learning.
Whitmer added that “we’ve made incredible strides.”
“I do think we will have a lot of our educational workforce vaccinated in the next month or so that is our great hope,” she said.
Regarding reopenings of restaurants, Whitmer said that numbers are “better than most” in the region and even in the state but the new COVID variant is “giving us pause.”
Also with the potential post-holiday surge, Whitmer said that officials are waiting to make sure the numbers are not an upward trend and “just a blip.”
“I’m as eager as anyone to get our restaurants open for in-person dining; we got to make sure it is safe to do so and there are some encouraging signs but we have to be really smart and continue to watch the data,” Whitmer said.