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Could shortened in-person school schedule help stave off high number of COVID-19 cases?

Posted at 12:25 PM, Nov 18, 2021

(WXYZ) — Southfield Public Schools changed its schedule from five days a week in person to four days in person due to staffing challenges, and something surprising happened that has other districts being hit hard by COVID-19 taking notice.

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As November began, COVID19 case rates increased dramatically in Michigan. But according to the Southfield Public Schools dashboard, case rates in the district remained relatively steady.

Graphic: District summary since August 2020

And the community that surrounds the district has some of the lowest case rates in the county.

Some are asking if rates are low in the schools because of something the community is doing, or because of something the schools are doing.

"I can’t really state that it is making a difference with the COVID numbers coming from the community, but I can state it is making a difference in our school district," said Dr. Jennifer Green, superintendent of Southfield Public Schools.

Dr. Green sent an email to parents October 31 saying that the school would move to a four-day in person work week, and teach remote on Fridays through February.

"Has it helped? Yes. Our attendance rate has increased on Fridays. It has also provided those students and staff at home in quarantine an opportunity to engage with learning in a synchronous manner," said Dr. Green.

Seven Action News went to three of the areas top experts and asked if the change in schedule lead to less transmission of COVID-19.

Director of Infectious Disease Research Beaumont Health Dr. Matthew Simms says it is plausible.

"It’s unclear. You know, it is one place. The fact is, you decrease the amount of exposure, you decrease the chance of getting COVID," said Dr. Simms.

Oakland University Associate Professor in Microbiology and Immunology Dwayne M. Baxa, Ph.D., says while COVID-19 is predominantly spread in the air, the deep clean carried out on that fifth day it could help.

"You are more susceptible to other infections if you have an infection, because your immune system is trying to deal with that. So anything you can do to reduce the overall burden would be beneficial," said Dr. Baxa.

Infectious Diseases Lead for COVID-19 Response at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System Dr. Anurag Malani says it might have a slight impact, but he recommends we focus if possible on what is already proven effective, and others agree.

"It is wearing a mask and getting your vaccine," said Dr. Malani.

Dr. Baxa said, "If people aren’t vaccinated, if people aren’t wearing masks, if people aren’t social distancing, that extra day off isn’t going to make a big deal."

Dr. Simms said, "speaking as a parent, I love to keep my kids in person as much as possible, but it needs to be done safely. My school district mandates masking and if it didn’t, it would be a concern."

We will soon have more data for researchers to analyze. The Detroit Public Schools Community District is planning to move to a four-day in person schedule starting next month to deal with staffing shortages, allow for deep cleaning, and hopefully slow the spread of the virus.

It's something everyone wants to see happen at this critical time, one way or another.

"The way that hospitals are, we are really really busy. These are really challenging and difficult times. And I am concerned," said Dr. Malani.

These doctors are hoping the data is tracked and we can learn more about how the number of days in school impacts the spread of infection, so we can make evidence based decisions moving forward.