Labor Voices: COVID surge makes classroom too dangerous for students

April 14, 2021
By PAULA HERBART/President – Michigan Education Association
The return to in-person learning in most districts means increased vigilance around safety measures is imperative. Michigan’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases is a danger to our students, families and communities.
Case numbers for kids 10-19 years old have skyrocketed. School outbreaks rose 47% over the last week of March and first week of April, according to data released by state health officials. 
Those aren’t just numbers — they’re our children and our students.
As a result of this alarming trend in case numbers, MEA supports Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recommendation last Friday for a two-week pause for high school in-person learning and all youth sports activities to slow the spread of infection. Further, we support similar decisions locally for all levels of education, because while our classrooms can be safe for learning, they can only be so if communities around them take pandemic mitigation seriously. 
As case numbers rise in our communities, the schools in those communities see a corresponding rise in cases. Michigan currently has the highest test positivity rate and highest case count per 100,000 residents in the nation. According to data compiled by the New York Times, the metro areas in the country with the highest case counts are all in Michigan. The situation has become dire, and it will not improve unless we redouble our focus on safety.
Pausing in-person learning and youth sports are necessary steps to bring current outbreaks under control, but state health experts don’t think those are the primary cause. Rather, says Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, senior public health physician for the state Department of Health and Human Services, “It’s happening at social gatherings.  That’s where we are seeing higher levels of transmission.”  
If social activities outside school are driving the latest surge, that’s where our prevention focus must be. Masks and physical distancing can be enforced in schools, but if those mitigation strategies aren’t followed beyond the school walls, our students and communities will suffer.
Unfortunately, spring break travel is one of those social activities that has increased the threat to both health and continuation of in-person learning. We believe districts that continue in-person learning post-spring break need to make rapid COVID testing available for those students that traveled out of state, and anyone who travels should take advantage of rapid testing sites being set up statewide.
While the vast majority of educators have been vaccinated, the same cannot be said for the students we serve. New COVID-19 variants are a serious threat to our health, as they appear to be far more contagious. The appearance of these variants makes vaccination even more critical. 
Public health officials see this stage of the pandemic as a race between vaccinations and the current surge of this deadly disease. 
The most recent case numbers tell us that, at this point, we’re behind in that race — but we can catch up.
It’s gratifying to see huge turnouts at mass vaccination sites. It’s essential for all Michigan residents age 16 and up to get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect themselves and their families.
Our kids need in-person learning — and not just to meet their academic needs. They need to be present in their school buildings, in their classrooms and in their extracurricular activities for their social and emotional health, which the pandemic has seriously impacted.
But we can only get students into classrooms — and keep them there — if we all continue to adhere to safety guidelines. Please, keep wearing that mask, keep practicing social distancing, get tested and get vaccinated. 
Michigan students are depending on you.
Labor Voices
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.
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