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WUPHD: K-12 schools returning to in-person instruction

HANCOCK — After a decline in the rate of new cases over the past two weeks, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department announced Thursday K-12 schools in Houghton County would be able to resume face-to-face instruction Monday.

Schools had moved to remote learning on Sept. 28 after the rate of new cases had spiked.

Since then, testing capacity has increased, meaning surveillance testing is more readily available, said WUPHD Health Officer Kate Beer. At the same time, the rate of new cases has gone down.

“The fact that the schools will be going under Phase 4, which means masking is required in the classroom, means that should also help with our case rate,” she said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved the Upper Peninsula back to Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start Plan on Oct. 2, shortly before a state Supreme Court ruling invalidated emergency orders given since April. However, a Michigan Department Health and Human Services order Monday largely reinstated Whitmer’s emergency orders.

The seven-day average of cases per million, which peaked at 777.9 on Sept. 26, has since fallen to 326.1 as of Monday.

Beer said the percent of positive tests in the community has also stabilized. The seven-day average was at 9.8% as of Monday, down from a high of 10.7% on Oct. 2.

About half of the results are in from Saturday’s free testing clinic at the Gates Tennis Center, Beer said. Of the 657 people tested, about 335 have gotten results back. Of those, there have been at least 13 positives. That positive percentage rate, about 3.9%, is less than Beer had expected.

That percentage for the entire batch of tests would indicate the community spread of COVID-19 is receding, Beer said.

“If we’re under 8% for those results being positive, then the trend would be good,” she said.

Health care support systems are better able to manage a surge at this point, Beer said. They are reporting that they have the capacity to handle the current COVID cases and demand for testing while still providing routine health services, Beer said in a release.

WUPHD will continue to meet with local school administrators weekly and monitor numbers to determine if further closures are necessary.

Beer reminded people to maintain safe practices, such as wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart and washing hands frequently.

“It’s very important to keep our kids in school,” she said.

Michigan Technological University said Wednesday it also plans to resume on Monday the in-person classes that moved to remote learning.

Finlandia University plans to resume in-person instruction on Monday after live lecture classes were paused for a week-and-a-half for online learning.

The university had been looking at local numbers as well as the situation on campus, said Erin Barnett, dean of students at Finlandia. The university, which had an outbreak of 10 students reported by the state on Monday, is down to six active and 18 recovered. Another recovery is expected tomorrow, Barnett said.

“Our numbers internally are trending in the right direction,” she said. The university has been working closely with the health department, which has indicated it is safe to return, Barnett said.

“When we’ve had positive cases, because we were able to distance our classrooms, reduce capacity and had masking, we didn’t need to have a lot of tracing, because everybody was 6 to 8 feet part, masked in the classroom,” she said. “That’s really worked in our favor being a small school.”

Things are still subject to change as more results come back from the free testing on Saturday, Barnett said.

“If we have an uptick in cases, we’ll have to review it,” she said.

After a tumultuous few days in which the state Supreme Court ruled the emergency law Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had used to issue emergency orders since April unconstitutional, followed by the state Department of Health and Human Services issuing nearly identical orders under its own authority, Barnett said the university is not planning any change to its policies.

“We have our internal policies set,” she said. “They were guided by best practices and what the CDC and other health care providers have provided for us. Regardless of what the political situation is in Lansing, we’re going to continue with the policies we have in place to keep the campus safe.”

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