Health departments working with area schools to finalize back to school plans

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Students left classrooms on March 13 as state mandates to control the spread of COVID-19 were handed down by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Now, as the start date looms for back to school, schools are working to put together plans for in-person instruction.

Area health departments are working closely with area schools as staff and administrators put together plans for the 2020-21 school year. With many schools putting together a virtual or distance learning option, they are being encouraged to bring students back to classrooms for in-person instruction by county health departments.

“We have been in nearly daily contact with all our schools’ superintendents for the public districts, as well as our private school directors,” said Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the health department. “We’ve been answering their questions as they are putting together their preparedness plans. We are all very hopeful that we will remain in Phase 4 of [Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s] Safe Start Plan, which will allow for the return of in-person learning and get our kids back in the classroom.”

The Michigan Safe Start Plan was released by Gov. Whitmer on May 7. According to the plan, Michigan may be in Phase 4 “[COVID-19] cases, hospitalizations and deaths are clearly declining.” In Phase 4, “Safer at home” practices are in place such as “continued distancing, face coverings, safe workplace practices and small gatherings.” If the state were to be moved back to Phase 3, it would mean “[COVID-19] case growth is gradually declining.” This phase also is a “Safer at Home” level, but mandates “no gatherings.”

According to Conrad, the health department is helping to ensure the educators and administrators have the information they need to lay out their school’s best plans for safe learning.

“The health department supports plans for getting kids back into the classroom,” Conrad said.

The “Return to Schools Roadmap” was released by Whitmer at the end of June.

“This provides the requirements as well as the strong recommendations that the governor needs and wants to have in place for all schools,” Conrad said. “They do have to have those planed approved by Aug. 15, so the schools are definitely hard at work at it. What we are able to do is provide some more nuanced information as far as process.”

According to Conrad, situations such as a teacher testing positive for COVID-19, drop-off and pick-up procedures, and passing periods are examples of situations the health department and schools are working on solutions for.

Across county lines in Cass County, the Van/Buren/Cass District Health Department is also working with schools to find the best ways for each system to reopen in the fall.

“Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of our communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians and caregivers to go to work,” said Danielle Persky, deputy health officer and director of health promotion of the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department. “School closure disrupts the delivery of in-person instruction and critical services to children and families, which has negative individual and societal ramifications.”

Some critical services Perksy mentioned were helping children and families who were disadvantaged, supporting the development of social and emotional skills, creating and providing a safe learning environment, providing nutrition, seeing and addressing signs of neglect and abuse and providing physical activity opportunities.

In a Facebook Live video on Monday, Berrien County Health Department health officer Nikki Britten and Spectrum Health Lakeland president Loren Hamel discussed the differences in COVID-19 procedures today, versus in March when school buildings were closed.

“When we started this, there was kind of this paralysis around risk,” Hamel said. “That’s important when you’re learning about a disease. In returning to schools, it appears to be very low risk.”

Britten addressed that while COVID-19 case numbers were up since March, the health department and hospital have a better understanding of how to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We learned the smaller role that children play, and asymptomatic adults and otherwise play, in transmission,” Britten said. “We are in a different spot now.”

Britten said she had confidence in the steps the educators were taking to return students to their classrooms.

“[Schools] are taking as many steps to make our schools as low risk for COVID-19 transmission as possible,” Britten said. “I also believe and fully support that our schools are taking into account all the benefits of going to school for in-person instruction.”
Britten and Hamel cited anxiety, depression and social isolation as negatives potentially being experienced by young people due to COVID-19 closing classrooms.

“The best available evidence from countries that have opened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus,” Persky said.

As the starts to school approach, Aug. 15 will bring about all of the schools plans for the 2020-21 school year.

The Van Buren/Cass District Health Department made a statement supporting in-person instruction in the fall.

“Reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being and future of one of America’s greatest assets, our children, while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all of their families,” Persky said.

The communications manager for the Berrien County Health Department said plans are going to address what each school and school population need.

“It will look different from school district to school district, building to building, grade to grade,” Conrad said. “There’s a lot of variability just depending on circumstance, so that is where the health department has been aiding and guiding the schools, and making those plans come to life.

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