Apr. 15—KALKASKA — A rash of COVID-19 cases at Kalkaska Public Schools caused closures and a shift to virtual education for all but one school.
Fourteen school-associated positives popped up in the last week at the third-largest school district in the five-county region. Birch Street Elementary, Cherry Street Elementary, Kalkaska Middle and Kalkaska High will cease in-person learning beginning Monday, April 19 through April 25. Rapid City Elementary will remain open for face-to-face instruction as students and staff there have avoided exposure and quarantine.
District officials announced the move on Facebook shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, saying Kalkaska is "obligated to do all that is reasonable" to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Staff at the District #10 Health Department told KPS the spread of the virus is not happening within school walls, but instead through outside activities that made it difficult to fully staff the district.
Two schools have cases of COVID-19, but worries about exposure to siblings at the other two schools resulted in the near-full shutdown.
"It's not a great feeling that we're having to deal with this, but this is the right thing to do at this time," Superintendent Terry Starr said. "We're not excited about it, but we have to do our part."
All sports and clubs will also pause through April 25. Athletic Director John Arnold said there will be no practices, games or gatherings during that time. However, student athletes between the ages of 13-19 must participate in the rapid testing event on April 22 at the high school.
The district is providing five days worth of free meals that can be picked up at the high school cafeteria between 12:30-1:30 p.m. and 5:30-6:30 p.m. on April 20.
Rachael Birgy, president of the Kalkaska Board of Education, said closing the schools was a difficult decision.
"We see value in keeping kids face to face, but we also want to keep everyone as safe as possible," she said.
Kalkaska becomes the second area district to shift to virtual in the last week.
Traverse City Area Public Schools put in-person education on hold for the last two weeks, first following a directive from the Grand Traverse County Health Department and then making a board decision last Saturday. TCAPS trustees made the call because of high numbers of students in quarantine and fears about learning loss for those students.
Although a sizable portion of the Kalkaska student body and staff is quarantined, Birgy said the decision was not driven by the same reasons as TCAPS but instead because of the lack of staff and students.
"This is unique to Kalkaska," Birgy said.
Neither Birgy nor Starr had exact numbers on how many staff and students were in isolation or quarantine, but Birgy said they are not yet near the 25 percent absenteeism threshold that often results in a shutdown.
Parent reaction to the decision was mixed. Some applauded the district for protecting the students. Others worried about learning loss and difficulties accessing the internet and sufficient technology to learn virtually.
Shannon Car, the mother of a first grader, said her family does not have internet access within their home. Their only option was to use cell phone data, but the costs were too high for a family struggling to pay bills month to month, Car said. Car resorted to driving her daughter into town to the Kalkaska Township Hall during the last shift to remote learning to access the internet.
The situation has been more than frustrating for Car, who continues to worry about her daughter's learning loss. The first grader is already on an individualized reading plan, and Car knows she's only falling further behind.
"It is absolutely affecting her education in a totally negative way," Car said. "I'm doing everything I can, and my mom spends hours with her on the phone (reading with her)."
Starr said he is "relatively confident" that schools will reopen April 26.
"We'll see how things go," he said. "We're certainly optimistic though."