More Masks Returning in Saline Classrooms Due to COVID-19 Outbreaks

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More students will be strapping on masks around Saline Area Schools this week.

Hours after the Saline Area Schools district announced a protocol for an uptick in COVID-19 outbreaks in the community, the Washtenaw County Health Department changed its guidance. As a result, the district decided to change its protocol only hours after the first protocol was released - which means you're going to start seeing more masks in Saline schools.

In an email that went out to the community Tuesday morning, Superintendent Steve Laatsch  reported that the district has five outbreaks in Saline Schools. The health department defines an outbreak as three or more cases in a classroom or 10 percent or more of the class.

Two of those classes recently returned from fifth grade camp and the district also has experienced an increase in cases related to the eighth grade trip to Washtenaw DC.

The district announced protocols in a 9 a.m. email to the community.

But after that email went out, the health department sent an email to the district clarifying that all close contacts should wear masks, even those who have had COVID in the last three months.

At around 5 p.m., the district sent out the new protocols.

"So that is an example of us needing to be flexible and respond to the guidance," Laatsch said, noting the district has tried to be consistent in following health department guidance.

The main change is that students and close contacts of those in classrooms that have had outbreaks will have to wear masks regardless if they've have COVID-19 in the last 90s. The first guidance said students who'd had had COVID-19 within the last 90s would be exempt from the mask policy.

Despite the designation of outbreaks, Laatsch said it's difficult to determine if the classrooms are a source of the spread or if cases are related to outside exposure connected to families or extracurricular activities.

"Regardless of the origin, our goal is to prevent further spread. For this reason, we continue to follow the Washington County Health Department guidance regarding outbreak management and notification,"  Laatsch said.

The district is also recommending students, parents and staff on field trips take a COVID-19 test 24 hours before the trip and continue to monitor for symptoms. Masks on buses will be highly recommended "based on our experience with the D.C. trip," Laatsch said.

If a child becomes ill on a field trip, like the trip to Chicago, parents will have to pick them up since they won't be able to join other students on the bus.

Laatsch reiterated that parents should continue to monitor the health of their children and keep them if they have symptoms. He said the district did have some free at-home tests available.

The rise in cases came just 12 days after the district discontinued use of its dashboard. Saline is not alone in relaxing COVID-19 reporting. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has also scaled back data on cases, positivity, hospitalizations and other related metrics.

"(The dashboard) is no longer part of the cycle of guidance from either the Washington County Health Department or Michigan Department of Health and Human Services," Laatsch said.

Laatsch said the district continues to track data "very closely" even if it isn't publishing the data.

"Every building has a tracking sheet that's updated daily," Laatsch said.

Currently, less than 1 percent of the student and staff population have tested positive, Laatsch said, which is much lower than it was coming off the winter break in 2021.

Still, Laatsch said, the district is taking the situation seriously. He said the district continues to consult with district nurse Karen Hervey on a daily basis.

"We're still talking about a very contagious virus," Laatsch said.

The district is learning how to live with COVID-19 and keep kids in the classroom.

"Operationalizing COVID-19 procedures, as we move towards endemic status, is important for all schools. We do anticipate peaks, and valleys and positive cases. As we move into the next year and future years, our focus will continue to be the health and safety of our students and staff, while we learn to live with COVID-19 being among the communicable diseases that we manage in the school setting," Laatsch said.

A recent student of student test scores showed the dramatic negative impact of remote learning.

Earlier in the meeting, the Trustee Susan Estep moved to make the COVID-19 update a discussion item on the agenda, rather than just have it as part of Superintendent Laatsch's administrative report.  The motion was seconded by Secretary Kandace Jones.

Treasurer Brad Gerbe said he was comfortable with the update being part of Laatsch's report.

Estep said four members (of the board) had been contacted by several families about the COVID-19 situation.

"I want to make sure that all that information is covered and if any board members have questions they can ask," Estep said.

President Jennifer Steben said she understood that this report would be part of Laatsch's regular update.

Estep's motion was supported by Jones and Trustee David Hayward. Trustees Jenny Miller, Gerbe, Vice President Mike McVey and Steben voted against the motion.

After thanking parents who reached out to the board with their concerns about COVID-19, Estep had sharp words for the board's decision following Laatsch's update later in the meeting. 

"When I, as your public official, am approached by many of our constituents with questions and concerns, especially when it impacts multiple people in the community, is my duty to assure that this is addressed publicly," Estep said. "I'm disappointed that board members were not given the opportunity tonight to ask questions and ask for any clarity."

As you can see on the Washtenaw County Health Department's COVID-19 dashboard, data reporting has been cut back.

However, while tables and other data aren't being updated, the health department is still providing daily case counts. Tuesday, the department reported 182 confirmed cases and 78 probable cases. During the most recent update on April 16, there were 949 cases on Washtenaw for the week.

Positivity has been trending upward. Rates as low as 3 percent for weeks climbed as high as 10 percent before falling back to 6 percent on April 19 - the last time the MDHSS reported the positivity rate.  But with so many people home-testing, it's hard to put much stock in state case and positivity data.

Hospitalizations remains a telling metric. Despite the increase in positivity and cases throughout Michigan, the number of COVID-19 patients in ICU beds remains low. On April 25, there were 89 patients in critical care beds. The number has been at 100 or fewer since March 25.

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