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State’s transparency about COVID in schools falls short

Better late than never seems to be the best state health officials can do when it comes to providing basic information to Michiganders about COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

Unfortunately, their late arrival means hundreds of thousands of Michigan families made decisions about returning to school without the benefit of the one piece of information common sense tells us would be important to their considerations.

Which schools have experienced infections, how many students and teachers contracted the disease, and whether the spread is ongoing seem like basic bits health officials could disseminate widely to help parents make informed decisions about their children’s safety this fall.

Yet, somehow health leaders who have spent the past six months shaping our statewide reaction to the pandemic were both unwilling and incapable of disseminating such important information.

It has been half a month since Bridge Magazine first reported state officials’ acknowledgment of 14 COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, colleges and universities. From the outset, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services leaders refused to disclose even basic location information related to the outbreaks — not even the county where the school outbreaks occurred.

Health officials said they planned to allow a patchwork of notifications to trickle from local health departments and school administrators to parents whose children are exposed. They wouldn’t require widespread notification, because such disclosures could spread “stigma.”

Concerns over stigmatization are real but worries about unequal treatment seem moot at a moment when it’s unlikely any Michigan school will escape the coming year without at least one exposure.

In fact, it was only because of the forward-thinking, transparent actions of Kingsley Public Schools Superintendent Keith Smith our community learned of the district’s first brush with COVID-19 last week when a high school student tested positive for the infection. The district’s announcement of the exposure and the actions it took to address the issue were important facts for parents, teachers and others in the community who need to make informed decisions.

Since the state first revealed its less-than-transparent plan for handling information about infections in schools, leaders of nearly 30 Michigan news organizations, including the Record-Eagle, signed a letter asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to take immediate action to release information about COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s educational institutions. And earlier this month, the governor and the state’s top health officials committed to launching a public portal by today that will catalog outbreaks in schools.

The state’s decision to release the information is an important step, and an acknowledgment that leaders who are grappling with statewide pandemic response are attempting to meet the needs of residents.

But we will reserve applause until we see the once-weekly updates come to fruition.

Such treatment of transparency — as an afterthought, not a priority — is a frustrating theme we’ve become accustomed to when dealing with the state government, both during and prior to the pandemic.

Only at this moment, the ramifications of government murkiness carry with them the ramifications of a pandemic disease our nation has struggled to address.

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