How omicron is making another COVID school year even worse

By: - January 14, 2022 7:30 am

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Kathleen Lucas, a mother from Zeeland, was nervous about sending her daughters back to school after the holidays, especially since Ottawa County rescinded its school mask mandate earlier this month, even with COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant surging. 

Lucas’ 7-year-old daughter, Emerson, tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday morning after being exposed to the virus in her classroom last week. 

“I have been sending our superintendent and our school board emotional, yet informational, pleas in email form since winter break because I don’t think this is safe or responsible for school districts to be in-person without masks with omicron raging,” Lucas said. “We can at least do the bare minimum. Even if we can’t stop the spread, we can slow the spread in schools by requiring masks.”

Some Ottawa County schools decided to keep their mask mandates in place, including Holland Public Schools, Spring Lake Public Schools and Grand Haven Area Public Schools. However, Hudsonville Public Schools, where Lucas’ children attend, did not reinstate a mask order. 

Stephanie Fast, Hudsonville Public Schools public relations manager, declined to comment specifically on the district’s decision not to reinstate a mask mandate, but said without a county mandate “each district is sort of making that decision for themselves.”

Hudsonville Public Schools made headlines last spring after parents protesting mask mandates were locked out of an April school board meeting when the room reached capacity. 

I have been sending our superintendent and our school board emotional, yet informational, pleas in email form since winter break because I don't think this is safe or responsible for school districts to be in-person without masks with omicron raging. We can at least do the bare minimum. Even if we can't stop the spread, we can slow the spread in schools by requiring masks.

– Zeeland parent Kathleen Lucas, whose daughter tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday

The state reported Tuesday that there are over 600 cases of the omicron variant in 41 counties in Michigan. The variant is exacerbating the issue that COVID-19 cases have been continuing to rise for months. As of Monday, there are 1,209,593 cases and 28,228 deaths, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dropped the statewide mask mandate for schools over the summer, and it’s unlikely that the state will do another statewide requirement. The Democratic governor said last month that “sweeping mandates are less likely to influence and encourage that population to get vaccinated.”

So mask mandates have been up to individual districts’ discretion since the start of the school year, and many Michigan schools have decided to make masking optional. In turn, every week, hundreds of Michigan schools are reporting outbreaks. 

This week, 211 pre-kindergarten-12 schools are reporting new or ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. Only halfway through the month, 24 Michigan public schools have closed temporarily or put in place remote learning plans in January due to COVID-19 disruptions, including Ann Arbor Public Schools, Detroit Public School Community District and Flint City School District, according to Burbio, a data service that aggregates calendars nationwide.

Recently, some schools have decided to put mask mandates back in place as the current surge worsens, said Doug Pratt, Michigan Education Association (MEA) director of public affairs. 

“In the last few weeks, there have been some very high profile decisions in Macomb County and up in Traverse [City], and these districts are reinstating [mask mandates] to keep people safe,” Pratt said. “And that’s appropriate. But those decisions need to be made at the local level so that they’re honored, maintained and adopted.”

For parents like Lucas, who is now taking care of her daughter while she continues to work from home, the lack of COVID-19 protocols in schools puts them in a tough spot. 

Lucas’ district doesn’t have a virtual option for students quarantining at home or as an alternative to in-person learning for parents who feel unsafe sending their children back to school. 

“Our district’s choices are leading to loss of learning,” Lucas said. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District student at Ronald Brown Academy. DPSCD has a mask mandate. | Ken Coleman

Pratt said teachers are continuing to struggle with burnout as they go through a third school affected by the pandemic, and the teacher and substitute teacher shortages continue to get worse. 

“Districts that already had shortages of teachers and other educators, any kind of outbreak of illness, COVID or otherwise, just makes it untenable to have students safely on site. There just aren’t enough bodies to meet student needs,” Pratt said. 

Whitmer signed into law a bill late last year that waives the 60-hour college credit requirement for support staff members like bus drivers and lunch workers who want to substitute teach in their district, expanding the pool of people eligible to fill in when teachers are out. 

“The educator shortage isn’t something new, but the pandemic has made it worse,” Pratt said. “Right now, finding substitutes is difficult. We’re seeing teachers have to cover classes and skip their prep periods, administrators and support staff stepping in and we’ve heard about superintendents serving as substitutes.”

Lucas doesn’t blame the teachers who have also been struggling throughout the pandemic; she just wants action from her local school district. 

“The teachers are doing the best they can. I certainly don’t blame them. We did get packets last time we were quarantined and appreciate everything the teachers are doing, but the teachers also need more support,” Lucas said. “I don’t see how this is sustainable for anyone; students, parents or teachers.”


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.