School closures could follow spring break if travel leads to COVID-19 surge, officials warn

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Joann Hoganson, health liaison for Kent County’s K-12 schools, is worried West Michigan could see a “surge on top of a surge” in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

The cause? Spring break.

Spring break lands on the first week of April this year for most schools across West Michigan. And after a year full of COVID-19 lockdowns, rules and regulations, families may be itching to travel next week, said Hoganson, who coordinates with schools on behalf of the Kent County Health Department.

School leaders across West Michigan say they are worried a surge in cases linked to travel could force schools to switch to remote learning after spring break.

While widespread vaccination efforts bring a light to the end of the tunnel in the coronavirus pandemic, Hoganson said things are not back to normal yet. West Michigan is fighting a new surge in COVID-19 cases, along with the rest of the state.

Health officials are concerned the latest increase in COVID-19 cases will become a third wave in the pandemic, particularly as more contagious variant strains become more prevalent. The latest surge in coronavirus cases is putting younger people in the hospital compared to a previous surge last fall.

RELATED: 6 ways that Michigan’s current COVID-19 spike differs from fall surge

“If we were to see even more cases or signs of the more contagious variant, it very well could put us back into a fully remote learning situation at some of our schools,” said Dan Behm, superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools. “And we don’t want to do that. We want to be able to go through this final part of the school year creating really good memories for kids and family.”

Other spring school activities, like graduation and prom, could also be jeopardized if the virus continues to spread among students and their families, said Jason Craner, spokesperson for Holland Public Schools.

“We are concerned that some of our spring activities could be at risk after numbers spike from spring break,” Craner said. “To be honest, I’m less concerned about schools being open than I am about people getting very sick or going to the hospital or dying from this. I also want schools to stay open.”

Holland is one of several West Michigan school districts that moved some students to remote learning this week in an effort to slow the spread of the virus ahead of spring break.

North Muskegon Public Schools also switched to online-only learning this week because 10% of the district’s 969 students were either in quarantine or isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 or being identified as a close contact.

Superintendent Curt Babcock warned the trajectory of COVID-19 cases within the Muskegon community over spring break will determine whether kids can come back to school. In a March 26 letter to families, Babcock pleaded with the school community to “make decisions that will promote the wellbeing of all.”

“Our behaviors over spring break are crucial to our return to what we all want – our kids in our school learning with their teachers and staff,” Babcock wrote in the letter. “We all need to be on the same page relative to mitigation strategies. There seems to be no other way for us to move forward; wear a mask, social/physical distance, keep your and your child’s in-person social circle small, and wash hands regularly.”

While experts attribute the latest COVID-19 surge to the reopening of schools, data shows classrooms may not necessarily be the source of infection, Hoganson said.

Many cases in students are being linked to the household setting, Hoganson said. For example, someone in the student’s household tests positive, and the student is then placed in quarantine and later tests positive as well.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in cases amongst students, but most of the children that are testing positive have household contacts,” Hoganson said. “So, they are testing positive but we don’t think they’re getting infection in the classroom setting.”

RELATED: Who and where Michigan’s coronavirus surge is hitting hardest

Hoganson said some of the COVID-19 spread can be attributed to people just getting tired of following safety protocols like social distancing, mask use and hand washing. But health leaders are concerned that COVID-19 fatigue could leave many Michiganders anxious to travel next week, Hoganson said.

“I think we are definitely seeing people who are tired of staying home,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that have anxiously waited for this moment and maybe just saying, ‘I’ve had it, I’m going to take a trip, I put it off long enough.’”

Spring break travel is expected to reach nearly pre-pandemic levels this month as estimates for the busy spring break period between April 1 and 10 continue to rise at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Airport officials said they expect next week to be the busiest week of travel since the start of the pandemic, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Kent County Health Department is encouraging schools to limit face-to-face interactions in the week following spring break by switching to hybrid or remote learning, Hoganson said.

Grand Rapids Public Schools has already taken action following the health department’s recommendations, delaying its plans to extend in-person learning to four days a week.

Forest Hills also announced its high school students will be fully virtual on the first day back from spring break on Monday, April 12.

To help you navigate this complicated school year, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.

More on MLive:

Spring break travel out of Grand Rapids airport expected near pre-pandemic level

Grand Rapids delays expansion of in-person learning amid regional COVID-19 surge

Majority of teachers at these West Michigan schools are vaccinated or on track to soon be, leaders say

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