By Megan Kelley
In the wake of school closures throughout the state due to increased COVID-19 cases, last week Lake Orion Community Schools joined several neighboring districts in moving all of their in-person students back to remote learning.
District administration, as well as the school board, met for a regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday of last week with a full agenda, the most highly anticipated item on it being Superintendent Ben Kirby’s COVID-19 update.
Kirby has become accustomed to providing a COVID-19 update at each meeting, while also including details on the information that is being used to make decisions in the district.
“Things have really changed and that’s why we made the decision that we made to move the district to the remote setting,” Kirby said. “We made that decision for DK (developmental kindergarten) through eighth (grade) even though it wasn’t mandated by the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services).”
Kirby said he regularly looked at the phases put in place by the state, anecdotal evidence based on the district’s own experiences, as well as experiences of other districts, the time in which it takes test results to come back, cases within the district boundaries and other data provided by the state and other independent sources.
Last week, when the district announced that they would be closing all of their schools and transitioning back to remote learning, a district communication also informed the community that they had 62 staff members, 310 students along with14 full classrooms currently quarantining. On Monday, the district had 55 “school associated” positive cases, according to the district website.
“We had some really great in-person experiences. Some of the challenges we had…the number of staff and students that were in quarantine and the positive cases that were in the community and then coming into the school caused us to make those decisions,” Kirby said.
Originally, when the district began in-person instruction, test results were available roughly 48 hours after the test was administered. This allowed the district to do the necessary contact tracing in a timely manner.
Now, test results are not being received until roughly three to five days later, making it far more difficult to do the contact tracing necessary, Kirby explained.
Positive cases within the district boundaries also continue to rise. On Monday, Oakland County reported 348 cases within the LOCS district boundaries, or 84.2 per 10,000 people. Additionally, the state of Michigan has Oakland County listed at-risk level E — the highest risk level for contracting coronavirus — with roughly 494 new cases a day on average.
Kirby also spoke briefly about the hopes of a vaccine and the possibility of at-home testing being available next month.
Moving forward, the district is hoping to bring on board more substitute teachers to avoid “cross-contamination” — meaning to keep staff from having to help in multiple classrooms and therefore reduce the possibility of one staff member causing multiple classes to quarantine.
Current orders from the state health department require districts to cease in-person learning at the high school level through Dec. 8.
“We are in hopes of moving to in-person instruction again on Dec. 9,” Kirby said. “I understand that that is an optimistic approach, but we are very interested in getting our students back, certainly our special education and our elementary students.”
While the district hopes to have all students back in classrooms on Dec. 9, Kirby added that his goal is to get special education students and elementary-aged students back into classrooms as soon as possible.
“At a minimum, my major motivation is going to be special education students…and our elementary students, at least our early elementary students. I just think it’s imperative that with some of the data we have and what we know about the learning loss.
“I just feel a moral imperative that we get our early learners in as soon as possible — but it’s got to be safe. That’s going to be the caveat to it all, and what safe looks like is not one number, it’s a variety of things that come together that help make a decision,” Kirby said.