US-NEWS-CORONAVIRUS-MICH-SCHOOLS-DE

A sign encourages the use of a mask at the entry of Ecorse High School in Ecorse on Sept. 7, 2021. 

DETROIT — Each day in the last week, more than 375 children younger than 12 were infected with the coronavirus in Michigan, a new state analysis shows.

Coronavirus cases in K-12 schools accounted for 56% of all known new outbreaks statewide last week — more than in every other setting combined, according to state health department data.

In all, new and ongoing outbreaks and clusters affected at least 104 schools, causing children to lose instruction time because of illness or quarantine. Each outbreak was estimated to affect as many as 87 students and school staff members.

With coronavirus case rates highest among school-age children in Michigan, an informal survey of local health departments showed that as of Oct. 1, coronavirus outbreaks caused:

— 3 districts to close entirely;

— 12 schools to close and one in-school preschool to close;

— 5 grades to shut down;

— 34 classrooms to close.

Among the school districts affected was Evart Public Schools in Osceola County. COVID-19 outbreaks closed Evart High School and Middle School from Sept. 22-Oct. 4, along with Evart Elementary School from Sept. 23-Oct. 4.

"We are doing everything possible to keep our students safe, healthy and face to face," wrote Superintendent Shirley Howard in a letter to parents, explaining that learning would be virtual in that time. "We believe that closing school now will help to break the cycle of our high absenteeism due to positive Covid cases as well as the quarantining of close contacts."

When students returned to schools on Monday, she urged them to come wearing masks.

"We strongly recommend that they wear a mask," she wrote. "This is not a requirement to return to school. Wearing a mask prevents your child from having to quarantine if they are identified as a close contact to someone who has tested positive for COVID. If your child is not feeling well on Monday, please do not send him/her back to school. I cannot believe how quickly this virus spreads."

Masks reduced transmission

The state's analysis of COVID-19 outbreaks in K-12 schools showed the rise in cases was steeper in the first few weeks of the school year in districts without consistent mask requirements.

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department recommend wearing masks indoors in places where coronavirus transmission is high or substantial, there is no requirement that masks must be worn inside K-12 schools in Michigan.

Masks were required in schools last year, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly said this year it should be a local decision to be made at the school district or county health department level.

The issue has turned school board meetings and county commission meetings into sometimes hours-long shouting matches that have sometimes included threats of violence. It has made mask mandates a political hot potato that's too hot for many to touch.

As of Monday, 222 school districts statewide had mask rules in place — either instituted by their local school boards or county health departments, the report showed. The mandates cover about 748,000 children.

But the share of children who are not covered by mask mandates is growing in Michigan. Now, more than half a million students in 311 school districts statewide have no mask requirements.

Thirty-five Michigan school districts recently dropped their mask rules, coinciding with the approval of a new statewide budget that included language that threatened to strip state funding from local health departments that imposed school mask mandates under the public health code.

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the nearly $70 billion budget last week, she said the budget language, along with provisions banning vaccine passports and mandates, were unconstitutional and unenforceable.

But some local health department leaders were concerned that the budget language would trigger lawsuits over school mask mandates and quarantine rules, pushing them to drop their requirements.

Among them were the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department in the Upper Peninsula, the Allegan County Health Department in western Michigan and the Barry-Eaton District Health Department.

"The decision to rescind the K-6 Mask Requirement was not made lightly and has challenged us ethically, professionally, and personally," said Allegan County Health Officer Angelique Joynes in a statement issued last week. "However, we cannot risk our essential local public health services funding, which is around $1 million of our total budget and provides the ability for us to continue to offer those services."

Last month, the Michigan Association for Local Public Health called on Whitmer and Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the state health department, to issue a statewide school mask mandate.

"Masking works," said Norm Hess, executive director of the association. "There are now going to be kids that were protected that won't be, and I don't see how at this point we're going to avoid a rise in cases."

Cases continue to climb statewide

The state has seen three months of increases in cases and hospitalizations from the virus.

On Wednesday, the seven-day average of new daily cases reached 3,491, its highest point since early May, as Michigan was coming down from its spring surge. Michigan's seven-day case rate was 288.8 per 100,000 people Thursday, according to the CDC — 15th highest nationally.

Every county in the state had a high rate of coronavirus transmission Thursday by the CDC's standard, except for one — Ontongagon. That Upper Peninsula county had a substantial transmission rate.

Although the virus generally doesn't cause severe illness in most children, state health officials have reported a growing number of COVID-19 hospitalizations among kids. On Wednesday, 34 children were hospitalized with the virus, more than double the number of pediatric hospitalizations one month earlier, when there were 16.

COVID-19 also can cause long-term, sometimes debilitating symptoms in some children and adults and also can rarely cause multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

Only the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use in kids ages 12 and older under an emergency use authorization. The company asked federal regulators on Thursday to allow the vaccine to be given to 5-11-year-olds as well.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to consider the request later this month, which could mean shots for younger children could be available later this fall.

But in the meantime, younger children aren't eligible for coronavirus vaccines. And the vaccination rate among school-age children who are eligible is lagging in the state.

About 40% of 12-19-year-olds in Michigan are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, state data show. That compares with an overall statewide average of 52.7%, according to the CDC.

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