By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Oxford Middle School closed for three days last week due to a trend in positive COVID-19 cases.
“This is a proactive, cautionary measure and we are proud of our students and staff for their continued adherence to our protocols,” Oxford Community Schools wrote in a letter to families.
The decision came late in the afternoon Tuesday, Oct. 6. The school district had reported two positive cases, one on Oct. 2 and another Oct. 5, but they were waiting on the test results of several more presumptive cases from Oakland County Health Division (OCHD).
“In our experience, this can be a lengthy process while epidemiologists speak with health care providers and perform contact tracing,” the letter explained. “Rather than risking potential additional exposures in the interim, we are choosing to temporarily close Oxford Middle School for the remainder of the week.”
OCHD confirmed two additional cases on Oct. 7 and a fifth case on Oct. 8. All cases were students. The last case was last in school Oct. 5 and “presented some level of exposure in school.”
Only two of the cases appear to be linked, according to OCHD. The other three cases appear to be unrelated.
The two related cases constitute an “outbreak.” According to the state, an outbreak is defined as two or more COVID-19 cases who may have shared exposure at one location and are not from the same household. Michigan reports school outbreaks on the state’s coronavirus website. This is the first reported outbreak at Oxford schools.
“We believe (the transmission) was when students were unmasked at lunch,” said Jill Lemond, Director of Strategic Initiatives and District Safety Operations for Oxford Schools. “So we’re pretty happy about our classroom protocols and hallways and the time that they’re spending in the classroom together. We still don’t have any evidence of transmission within the classroom.”
As of Friday, Oct. 9, the school was not waiting on any more presumptive test results. Whenever Lemond becomes aware of a possible presumptive case from a parent, she fills out a case report form and submits it to the county. “I have no outstanding forms at this time,” Lemond said on Friday, though she pointed out that doesn’t necessarily mean there are no other cases. “Students may be testing, I’m just not aware of them.”
Of course, that’s why it is important for parents to communicate. Lemond expressed her gratitude for the parent community for doing so, which has allowed the schools to return to in-person while many other districts in the area have not.
“We could not be doing this if our parents were not being incredibly vigilant at home, checking students for symptoms, having them tested when they should be tested and communicating with us. The parents are telling us when students have a positive test. And that allows us to act on quarantines and make school closures and things like that.
“For example, if I had waited until I heard confirmation from the health department of our last case, I didn’t have that until (Thursday) morning. But I was aware of that case and it informed our decision to close. And we only know that because parents have been so open with us and honest about testing and about symptoms. So if we continue this way, we feel confident we can stay open and safely.”
While the building was closed Oct. 7-9, the middle school continued learning remotely in alignment with the Phases 1-3 COVID-19 Distance Learning Plan. Monday, Oct. 12 was already a scheduled holiday.
As long as there were no new cases over the weekend and Monday, the school planned to return to in-person learning Tuesday, Oct. 13 (after the deadline of this week’s Oxford Leader). “A lot of thought went into that,” Lemond said. “It wasn’t just an arbitrary date.”
The incubation period for the virus is 2-14 days and the average length of time for symptoms to appear is 5-7 days. The last positive case was in the building on Oct. 5, so reopening on Oct. 13 allowed for the full seven days of the average incubation period.
Close contacts are still quarantined, however. As required by OCHD, any student asked to quarantine will be out of school for 14 days from their last exposure to a positive case. Any students already directed to quarantine will need to finish their 14 day quarantine before they may return to school.
“The entire school building has undergone extensive disinfecting treatments as an additional precaution,” according to the letter to parents.
Lemond continues to monitor the active cases and close contacts. “We’ve been reaching out to our quarantined kids to see if they’re developing any symptoms and things like that, trying to stay in contact with those families to make sure that we are monitoring the possible spread,” she said.
The school was prepared to make the switch to distance learning on a moment’s notice. “I’m not going to say that it is easy for staff to toggle back and forth, but they’re well-trained on the learning platforms. And we expected and we continue to expect this to happen from time to time as we have small spikes throughout the next school year. So we were ready for it and we will be ready should we need to do it again.
“I hope it shows the community that we’re constantly monitoring the situation. There is no amount of ego involved in this. It is all about safety. We’ll stay open as long as we can, as long as it’s safe for staff and students.”
Lemond thinks closing the school likely helped contain the situation. “I guess we’ll never be able to prove that, but it is something that we wanted to do to be prudent and to be proactive. The Health Department did not require that we do that. They actually do not have a specific threshold for number of cases before they would close down a building. So, that was a decision that we made with them and with their support, but it was our decision.
“I’m happy to say that we don’t know of any other cases. I know that we had several students that were quarantined test and have tested negative. And like I said earlier, I’m not aware of any positive tests outstanding at this time.”
The district’s Oct. 9 weekly COVID-19 update reported one additional student case at Oxford Virtual Academy, bringing the district-wide total of active cases to six.
Prior to these cases, Oxford Schools has reported eight unrelated cases at schools across the district since returning to in-person learning. Those cases are no longer active.
By James Hanlon