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Why Michigan is forcing high schools, colleges to go remote, but not younger students

MDHHS says fewer outbreaks associated with younger grades

An empty classroom. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
An empty classroom. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Michigan officials announced Sunday that in-person learning will be shut down for college and high school classes for three weeks due to COVID-19. But why aren’t all schools included in the order?

In the new COVID-19 safety order, which was announced Sunday night and will be in effect from Wednesday (Nov. 18) through Dec. 8, in-person K-8 schooling can continue as long as strong safety protocols are followed.

Fewer outbreaks

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, there have been fewer COVID-19 outbreaks associated with elementary and middle schools, when compared to the older grades.

“Of the 200 outbreaks that we are currently investigating ... 49% of them are associated with high schools," MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said. "Of the total number of individual cases associated with these outbreaks, almost two-thirds of those are associated with high schools.

Khaldun said there are simply more total COVID-19 cases linked to high schools, and the three-week move to remote learning could help get those outbreaks under control.

Need for in-person instruction

Michigan medical officials have said many times over the last few weeks that whenever people are inside with others who don’t live in their household, there’s risk of spreading COVID-19.

So there’s no denying in-person instruction of any kind increases the risk of spread, but when it comes to school, state officials have to weigh the risks of COVID-19 against the risks of keeping children out of class.

Officials said Sunday that younger children are most in need of in-person instruction. As a result, while they could still transmit the virus, elementary and middle school students are still allowed to attend classes because state officials determined it’s beneficial enough to permit.

“We know that in-person instruction is really important for younger students,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. “We know that the way that we have seen COVID-19 spread happening in schools, that is more often in those high school grades."

READ: Michigan high school sports now suspended under new state COVID order

“Children have already lost many months of education, but these are also indoor group settings that bring risk,” MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said. “Not all school settings are the same. There are fewer outbreaks associated with the younger children most in need of in-person instruction.”

The ultimate decision comes down to each individual district, though, and many school districts in Michigan and Metro Detroit have decided to go fully remote as case numbers soar statewide.

Distance learning easier for older students

Another factor in this decision: It’s simply easier for older students to learn remotely.

“We know that the high school students -- it’s easier for them to learn online,” Khaldun said. “They may not need childcare for those reasons. That’s why we thought this is the best thing to do for the next three weeks.”

“High schoolers have more contact per day, and thus, that’s why we see more spread in the older grades," Whitmer said. “You combine of these factors and the fact that it’s easier for older students to access distance learning and online learning.”

Older students are more likely to have access to the technology for remote learning, and they’re also more likely to make a smoother transition.

Childcare for working parents

Michigan also kept childcare open to help working parents.

“Throughout this crisis, Michigan’s teachers and childcare workers have served on the front lines, ensuring support for working parents and educating our children,” the state’s release said. “Gov. Whitmer’s administration has worked around the clock to protect Michigan’s teachers and childcare workers and the other heroes serving on the front lines of the pandemic.”


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