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COVID-19 spreads through Michigan's school-age children

Karen Apricot

Health officials in Northern Michigan say school-age children -- previously thought of as a low-risk group -- are increasingly spreading the novel coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 as Michigan becomes a national hotspot for the disease. 

But both school superintendents and health department leaders say there’s very little evidence of coronavirus transmission inside classrooms. The virus is spreading through extracurricular contact, they said.

Dr. Josh Meyerson, the medical director for three local health departments in Michigan, described how contact tracing is tracking the virus's spread through schools.

“We’ve seen outbreaks that started in one high school, and then you can almost kind of follow it where then it’s into another school and another school, and, you know, you can see where there’s been interactions between those schools, perhaps through games or competitions or other things,” he said.

The state health department reported 70 new outbreaks of the virus in schools this week, in addition to scores of ongoing outbreaks that started earlier.

Schools have surpassed long-term care facilities as the leading sources of outbreaks in Michigan.

Meyerson said winter sports, like wrestling and hockey, are particularly high-risk.

“Not to blame or shame anyone, it’s just that those activities lead to more opportunities for transmission than, like, cross country running, where they’re outdoors, and they’re spread out, and they’re just kind of running around in the woods,” he said.

Meyerson said the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus has been showing up in students in the northern lower peninsula, and that’s likely a big part of why more students are testing positive.

Some schools have suspended in-person learning as a result.

One of those districts is Gaylord Community Schools, which closed classrooms early for spring break last week -- the second time this month the district has shuttered its schools.

Superintendent Brian Pearson said the school system has had more cases this month than in the entire previous year of the pandemic -- about 100 cases this March, and 170 total cases since tracking began around this time last year.

“Today, we’re having a struggle. I mean, this is a grind,” he said.

Pearson said closing schools is a tough decision, because students could get together without supervision and ignore recommendations like masks and distancing.

“The message we’re sending is, when you’re with us, you’re safe,” he said. “We wear masks, we track contact, we know who sits where. I don’t have control over any of that off-campus.”

But Pearson said once he got word that the B.1.1.7 variant was in his schools, he had to move them to remote learning temporarily. “That changed the equation,” he said.

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