Michigan Schools Told to Keep Attendance for Sporting Events, Large Gatherings Virtual

Health and education officials in Michigan Thursday sent a letter to schools around the state emphasizing the necessity of enforcing policies to prevent COVID transmission in school, including potentially postponing sporting events or other large gatherings or making attendance to those events virtual.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services and Michael Rice, State Superintendent of the Department of Education sent the letter Thursday as schools prepare to return from holiday breaks in the coming weeks.

The letter outlines the importance of continued enforcement of masks and distancing during school, as well as urging eligible students and staff to receive a COVID vaccine and booster shot and requesting schools with the capability to hold vaccine and booster clinics in their buildings.

Hertel and Rice also asked schools to evaluate their plans for sporting events and other large gatherings for the upcoming semester, and whether those events could be modified or if they should be canceled to prevent the spread of COVID.

"Large gatherings (involving 100 or more people) should be held using remote technology or postponed, if not essential," the letter reads. "Large gatherings would include events with large numbers of people from multiple households such as conferences or meetings, sporting events, and concerts.

The letter does not contain specific guidance on how to determine what is an essential event, and what should be deemed non-essential.

The letter comes a day after Michigan officials announced that while it continues to review data that supports evidence of the new shortened isolation recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state health department will continue to recommend 10 days of isolation following a positive COVID test.

Michigan, COVID, Elizabeth Hertel, Michael Rice, Schools
People speak during a special Board of Education Meeting on mask mandates for students and staff in Kalamazoo County Schools at the Schoolcraft High School Gymnasium on Aug. 23, 2021 in Schoolcraft, Michigan. Officials from Michigan's health and education departments sent a letter to schools as they prepare to return from winter holiday breaks emphasizing the importance of COVID safety measures, including potentially postponing sporting events or other non-essential large gatherings. Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

"MDHHS advises modifications to planned activities during and after school where the ability to maintain social distancing between people who live in different households cannot be maintained," they wrote, citing an expected rise in infections caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant. The guidance does not apply to school lunches.

The top officials also reinforced vaccinations, universal masking and regular testing in all K-12 settings. At least one district, Pontiac, is switching to remote classes for at least two weeks because of the surge.

It also will wait for additional information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically for special populations and high-risk settings.

That may come early next week.

"In the interim, MDHHS will retain current quarantine and isolation guidelines including guidelines for K-12 and congregate care settings," the agency said.

That means students who test positive for COVID-19 should stay home for 10 days after getting sick or 10 days after the test if they have no symptoms.

The state and federal recommendations, while not binding, are used by local health departments. Several have issued orders spelling out isolation and quarantine rules. Violators can face civil and criminal penalties.

Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, said many health departments are reevaluating their orders or recommendations for schools and the general public.

"Some local health departments will wait for this additional guidance, while others will move ahead based on the information they know," he said.

Kent County, for instance, said it is aligning with the CDC protocols but noted the guidelines may not apply to schools, congregate settings or those working with people in high-risk groups. Ingham County adjusted its order for schools to incorporate the five-day isolation and quarantine periods.

Michigan, already grappling with a surge of infections fueled by the delta variant, is bracing for Omicron. It may be milder, though data is limited.

The state on Wednesday recorded case counts that shattered the record, reporting nearly 13,000 a day—almost a third more than the peak set in 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.