Sophomore year was trash. Junior year was trash.
Maybe senior year would hold some promise, said Leeaisa Adams, a 16-year-old Ecorse High School student, standing outside the school on Tuesday, the first day back.
For Ecorse students, much of last school year was spent online, an atmosphere that’s just not the same as in-person school, where Leeiasa’s friends surround her.
“It’s just the environment,” she said of returning.
Back-to-school this year feels like a fragile dance: More students are back in person and many desperately need the kind of attention they can get only from face-to-face classes. But the delta variant still hangs over Michigan: Schools are reporting new cases every day, triggering anxiety and debates over masks and how to respond to inevitable school cases.
It’s also unclear whether this year could lead to a repeat of last: Dozens of students quarantined at a time, with some districts switching back to virtual school at times.
Based on new Michigan Department of Health and Human Services guidance released Wednesday, it’s likely Michigan will not see scores of students quarantining.
There’s a lot at stake this year, as many educators fear students have fallen behind academically and are struggling emotionally. At Ecorse, Principal Michael Barclay darted from a hallway to outside to the gym as students started to file in.
“It’s very hard to build a relationship when you’re virtual,” he said. “They log in, then check out.”
Will students quarantine?
If a student tests positive or is experiencing symptoms, they should stay home.
The new Michigan Department of Health guidance, which is optional for school districts, outlines a few different scenarios:
- If a student is vaccinated and came in contact with a coronavirus-positive individual: The student can remain in school after exposure if they don’t experience any symptoms and wear a mask.
- If a student is not vaccinated and is exposed to a coronavirus-positive student while both are wearing masks and at least 3 feet apart: The student can remain in school, but should continue masking and monitoring symptoms.
- If a student is not vaccinated and is exposed to a coronavirus-positive student while both are wearing masks but are less than 3 feet apart: In this case, the exposed student can remain in school, but should test daily for seven days. If they can’t test daily, they should quarantine.
- If a student is exposed and one or both of the students is not wearing a mask: The student should quarantine, and can return after 10 days if they were symptom-free through those 10 days.
Masking is key in the layered approach the health department is recommending in its new guidance. However, masks are not mandated statewide. According to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, 229 of about 500 school districts in the state require a face covering. About 60% of public school students are under a mask mandate.
Testing also plays a big role in the new guidance but could prove expensive for parents if they can’t access testing supplies through their school. A same-day antigen test at CVS costs $23.99 — totaling nearly $170 for a week’s supply. Some counties, including Livingston and Bay, are experimenting with “test to stay” programs, providing tests to parents of children exposed to COVID-19 in school.
Is this the right approach? And will schools even take the advice?
Ultimately, all of this guidance is optional. Schools will opt for their own quarantine procedures.
In Detroit, the state’s biggest public school district, anyone considered a close contact of a staff member or student testing positive will be required to quarantine immediately under district policies. Utica Community School District’s parent handbook, however, specifies that close contacts “may” be asked to quarantine.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is similar to Michigan’s updated guidance. Both agencies see masks as key for keeping kids in schools.
“I think masks are important,” Dr. Dennis Cunningham, head of infection control at Henry Ford Health System, said. “I know not all schools are using them and there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet but if students wear masks, it’s really going to help prevent disease.”
Cunningham said the lunchroom may complicate Michigan’s quarantine guidance.
“What I do worry about is when kids are eating and drinking. … They’re not wearing a mask, and they’re probably close to other kids so that does make me a little nervous,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s going to work out real well.”
Dr. Jon Gold, a pediatrician with Michigan State University, said it can take up to two weeks from exposure for patients to start experiencing symptoms. But masking and distancing can help decrease the chance of spread in a school setting.
Doctors and public health officials are trying to strike a balance in setting protocols for schools.
“We know that really in-person school is best for kids and evidence seems to accumulate every day about how many of the kids who were virtual last year lost ground and we don’t want that to happen,” he said.