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Northeast Michigan schools extend closures as record infections reported

Courtesy Photo Nikki Oswald, a second-grade teacher at Ella White Elementary School, works from home in this photo provided by Alpena Public Schools.

ALPENA — Several school districts in Northeast Michigan are keeping kids learning at home until after winter break as public health officials today reported the highest number of infected Northeast Michiganders in a single day since the pandemic began.

K-12 students in Alpena Community Schools, Posen Consolidated Schools, and Hillman Community Schools, and at Pied Piper School will continue learning remotely until school resumes on Jan. 4.

In Atlanta Community Schools, kindergartners through fifth-graders will continue to learn in person, while students in sixth through 12th grades continue learning remotely.

Alcona Community Schools students in kindergartners through eighth-graders are expected to return to school on Wednesday, Superintendent Dan O’Connor said. High School students will continue learning remotely because they are learning remotely for the school year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month ordered high schoolers and college students to learn online until Tuesday to slow a statewide resurgence of the coronavirus. This week, she signaled she could extend that shutdown, which also included prohibitions on indoor service at bars and restaurants.

Meanwhile, Whitmer asked Michigan lawmakers to approve $300 million in state spending to fight the coronavirus into 2021, including money to support the broad-based distribution of pending vaccines.

RISING INFECTIONS

The interactive graphic below shows active infections in Northeast Michigan over time. Story continues below graphic.

Ninety Northeast Michigan residents today were reported infected with COVID-19, according to local public health officials, the most in a single day since the pandemic began.

Those newly infected Northeast Michiganders included 38 Alpena County residents, 33 Presque Isle County residents, eight Montmorency County residents, and 11 Alcona County residents.

That means that, as of today, 1,165 Northeast Michiganders were actively infected, meaning they’d been confirmed infected with COVID-19 but have not recovered or died, and could infect others.

As of today, 119 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection across the state-designated, 18-county health care region that includes Alpena, Presque Isle, and Montmorency counties, according to state data.

Since the pandemic hit Michigan in mid-March, 1,414 Northeast Michiganders have been infected, according to local public health agencies. Of those, 221 have recovered and 28 have died.

The last death was reported Thursday.

The interactive chart below shows cumulative infections, recoveries and deaths in Northeast Michigan over time. Story continues below graphic.

SAFETY, CONSISTENCY

Alpena Superintendent Dave Rabbideau said school officials are aware the infection trend is going up and decided continuing remote learning was the best decision.

He said district officials also want continuity for students.

“What we don’t want to do is keep flipping back and forth every day or every other day,” Rabbideau said. “We want to be as consistent as possible, and the primary way we can do that is by staying remote. If we do go back face to face with the number of cases we were seeing tied to the district, we would likely have to transition, come back, transition, come back.”

Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District Superintendent Scott Reynolds said in a letter to the community that district officials chose to continue remote learning out of concerns for their students, who are vulnerable every time they leave the safety of their home.

“While we place high value on face-to-face instruction, we simply cannot justify reopening Pied Piper School and our Early Child Special Education program in this manner if doing so exposes our most vulnerable,” Reynolds said in the letter.

Carl Seiter, superintendent of Hillman and Atlanta schools, said staffing challenges will keep Hillman Community Schools from returning to in-person learning.

Hillman staff and students have been infected with COVID-19, Seiter said, so he doesn’t want students to return to in-person learning only to have to transition back to remote learning again.

Seiter said Atlanta is lucky, because employees there have not been impacted by the coronavirus, so far.

O’Connor, the Alcona superintendent, said many of the isolation periods for employees either expired today or will expire early next week.

“We don’t have any pending cases that would cause us to have staffing problems or potentially result in having people that could be positive or symptomatic, other than the ones we may not know about in the district next week,” he said.

Calls to Onaway Area Community Schools Superintendent Rod Fullerton and Rogers City Area Schools Superintendent Nick Hein were not immediately returned today.

Flip through the interactive timeline below to see how the coronavirus spread through Northeast Michigan. Story continues below the timeline.

WHITMER’S REQUEST

Whitmer’s funding request, made Thursday, is in addition to the Democratic governor’s previous call for $100 million in direct aid to people and businesses hit hardest by the pandemic. Specifics on the $100 million in relief are light but expected to be negotiated with the Republican-led Legislature. State budget director Chris Kolb said it should be split in half between families and small businesses.

COVID-19 funding and other outbreak-related bills are a top priority in the remaining two weeks of the two-year session. The state budget office said the $300 million is needed to continue critical response activities that cannot be funded with previously authorized U.S. aid after Dec. 30 under federal law. It is unclear if Congress will enact an additional round of federal relief by year’s end.

“The Legislature has indicated a willingness to work with us quickly to ensure we are providing additional support for the people of Michigan,” Kolb said. “With the recent surge we have seen in the spread of the virus, and knowing the large need that exists for small businesses and people across the state, I think everyone understands the importance of getting this supplemental approved as soon as we can.”

The Whitmer administration has prohibited indoor restaurant dining and closed various entertainment businesses under an order designed to stem a spike in COVID-19 cases. The governor has said the restrictions may be extended beyond Tuesday, when they are due to end.

Included in the budget proposal is $192 million for the state health department to continue tracing, testing and a $2 hourly wage increase for “direct care” workers, including those in nursing homes and home health aides. The funding also would help expand the health care system’s capacity to distribute vaccines that may be available to the mass public by late spring.

The state environmental agency would get $25 million to continue wastewater surveillance to detect and monitor the virus within communities. Some $10 million would reduce child care costs for essential workers. Other funds would be used to inspect migrant housing in the 2021 and 2022 growing seasons, do weekly testing of all prisoners and corrections staff, combat infections at state veterans homes and test National Guard members.

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