Last Friday, an atmosphere of excitement and festivity emanated from Ann Arbor's Daycroft School gymnasium. While there wasn't any formal celebration happening, the community there certainly had reason to rejoice. Ten days prior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had expanded COVID-19 vaccination recommendations to include children ages 5 to 11. In response, the 165-student, Montessori-inspired school was holding a pop-up vaccination clinic for eligible students, their families, and faculty.
"The pharmacists ran out of doses and had to get more," says Daycroft Head of School David Lee. "It felt like a party atmosphere in the gym."
For Lee, the vaccinations provide an added layer of safety to an already sturdy set of COVID-19 precautions (such as masking, physical distancing, plentiful outdoor time, and health screening) that Daycroft School has been following this school year. He expresses gratitude to the collaborative efforts of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District
(WISD) and the Washtenaw County Health Department
(WCHD) for developing those protocols.
"It can be easy to feel like you're working in a silo sometimes," he says. "But they've both helped to level up connections between schools so that we can learn about, and share, best practices with each other."
Ashley Kryscynski, WISD's communications and public relations specialist, says the two agencies have been collectively navigating "a tremendous journey" since COVID-19 arrived in Washtenaw County.
"I often joke that we thought it was only going to be a three-week closure. Everything was happening so quickly and we weren't sure what the state was going to require us to do," she says. "Thankfully, we have an amazing partnership with the health department and they've always been on call for our school leaders."
Because WISD serves all local district and charter schools, Kryscynski says WISD staff felt it was important to create a shared discussion table for all of those schools, private school partners, and WCHD. She also shares that they felt the necessity to take recommended health measures "extra seriously in order to protect really sensitive or medically fragile students," some of whom are unable to wear masks or need to have teachers in close proximity.
Working from the shared understanding that everyone was navigating uncharted territory, weekly meetings became a regular occurrence.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, WCHD's communications and health promotion administrator, says WCHD prioritized talking with school partners even before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed locally. She credits WISD for helping the department consolidate all of the numerous, individual conversations they were having with schools by creating a space where school representatives could participate in a more communal and organized fashion.
"It was important to us to work with the schools as we figured out what could and couldn't be done safely," Ringler-Cerniglia says. "As we had those initial shutdowns, those conversations became critical."
Discussions included addressing local COVID-19 data, the level of spread in the community, and whether certain topics were being sensationalized in the news. Throughout, WCHD was able to share guidance for school partners to make safe decisions, suss out challenges, and prepare for the current school year.
"We quickly understood that it was in the best interest for all kids and county families to get the same information," Kryscynski says. "We've been working together to do everything that we can to keep kids and families safe while also taking very seriously our responsibility and our mission to educate children, too."
Having more in-person schooling options this year is not without challenges, Ringler-Cerniglia says, especially now that case numbers have begun to spike again across Michigan. However, she stresses that while questions remain, especially around the Delta variant, officials have learned enough about COVID-19 prevention for students to learn in person with relative safety.
Kerri Hudson, David White, Lupe Cervantes, and Susan Ringler-Cerniglia at a Washtenaw County Health Department vaccine clinic.
"For example, at the beginning of this school year we knew that we could have a set of mitigation and prevention measures in place, in a school setting, and that it wasn't going to be likely that we would see a lot of in-school transmission," she says.
Constant diligence in maintaining WCHD protocols is key and has been effective, Kryscynski says.
"We've only had 11 confirmed cases on-site at WISD since October 2020 and none of those have resulted in any spread to somebody else here," she says. "It's a sign to us that what we're doing is working."
"Test and stay"
Lee is looking forward to Dec. 3, when Daycroft will hold its second vaccination clinic. It's expected that students will be fully vaccinated heading into the winter break on Dec. 17.
"It's not a glorious story, from swabbing noses to unclogging toilets for us heads, but we are keeping our doors open and our kiddos and faculty safe," he says.
Alexander Lee (center) with his parents David and Anglea Lee after receiving his vaccine at Daycroft School.
Lee says WISD did a "wonderful thing" by providing cases of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests to schools. That's allowed schools to implement WCHD's "test and stay" policy when a student tests positive for COVID-19. Potentially exposed fellow students can be immediately tested on site, and if their tests come back negative they can stay in school instead of having to go home for 10 days.
"I feel that it puts us on par with some schools in European countries, who have been doing this very readily and with good success," Lee says.
He reports that teachers also feel more secure and safe, and perform more confidently. Some have even requested the tests for themselves before morning classes, for added security, if they are feeling even a bit under the weather.
Contact tracing and Health Resource Advocates
WISD Interim Deputy Superintendent Cherie Vannatter says keeping teachers and students safe has been a positive experience thanks to the cooperation and support between WISD and WCHD. Vannatter has been coordinating all the antigen testing for county schools, and she also does all the contact tracing for students in WISD's programs. The job involves a bit of sleuthing, but it's made easier by a comprehensive spreadsheet from WCHD that outlines options and procedures that must be followed when a positive case arises in a school setting. When she explains the procedures, most people are willing to comply and she reports only minor pushback from some families.
"We provide special education services at all of our public schools within the county. So we have students with pretty significant medical and behavioral challenges, and for the most part people understand that we want to do our best," she says.
In addition to the many hats that Vannatter wears, she is also in charge of hiring up to 14 Health Resource Advocates. Funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, these workers are being placed throughout the county to help not only WISD, but other local districts and parent-teacher associations. Their role will be to assist with contact tracing, antigen testing, and providing education around positive health practices. Vannatter has hired seven people so far and placed them in various districts.
"What's also exciting is that our schools with enough staff can use funding to help pay for current staff," she says. "For instance, Saline has school nurses who can help daily, so some of the funding could go to their district to help current staff."
Adam Blaylock, director of human resources at Lincoln Consolidated Schools, has been leading COVID safety for the district, working behind the scenes to support administrators, nurses, and the school's community.
Lincoln Consolidated Schools Director of Human Resources Adam Blaylock.
"I am not an educator by trade, but my job is to make that possible for others," he says. "My priority is to make sure that we comply with all the protocols from the health department and government and support our staff so that our kids have the option to be here safely every day."
Blaylock says Lincoln Consolidated Schools has not implemented a vaccine mandate for staff at this point. And, unless government-mandated, the district may never have a fully-vaccinated staff since some can't get immunizations due to health or religious reasons.
"Sometimes I'm in a tough position with teachers who are incredibly dedicated to our students and I have to tell them that they have to stay home. But we're going to deal with that stuff until the pandemic is under control," he says.
From Blaylock's point of view, keeping schools safe and open for in-person learning is paramount for a number of reasons that the public – and even some in the school community – may not fully understand.
"It's no secret that mental health issues have dramatically increased since last year. And it's no secret that the number of child protective referrals went down dramatically. That means that things are not being reported when we don't have our eyes on our kids," he says. "Also, there are reports that child poverty is going down due to policies that allow us to provide free meals to our students."
As the school year marches forward, Blaylock has a big wish for the future: that parents and the community remain patient as he and his colleagues continue to advocate for the county's children to safely attend school in person.
"I'm thankful that the health department and WISD very much support us in keeping our kids safe," he says. "It's what's kept us ahead of COVID and will mean a successful future down the road."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.