This is the best available count of COVID-19 cases in Michigan schools. Here’s what it means.

Michigan collects more information about COVID-19 than many other states, but it has not published a reliable count of coronavirus cases linked to schools.

The charts below contain the best available estimates of outbreaks and virus spread in schools across the state, which Chalkbeat compiled from state reports.

The numbers should be taken with a heaping grain of salt. For starters, state health authorities don’t track individual COVID-19 cases in schools. They track school-based outbreaks, defined as two or more potentially related cases on school grounds, meaning single might not be included in the data. What’s more, the numbers may have been collected using inconsistent methods.

We are publishing the data anyway to help readers better understand the available information about COVID-19 in schools. The state’s outbreak data is released weekly and broadcast by many local media outlets.

Though imprecise, the charts offer answers to basic questions that state officials have not answered:

How many cases of COVID-19 have been reported in schools? How has that changed over time? Where were the cases reported?

Tracking the data is especially important now, as Michigan students return to classrooms in greater numbers than at any time since September.

How many cases of COVID-19 have been reported in schools?

More than 7,900 cases have been reported in schools as part of outbreaks. The number of school-related cases rose amid the November wave of COVID-19, then fell steadily after Thanksgiving. It rose again as schools reopened in January and February, but has not come close to November levels.

How many schools reported outbreaks?

Of 711 school districts that planned to offer some form of in-person instruction since September, more than 253 had at least one outbreak. Outbreaks represent as few as two COVID-19 cases. Schools often remained open during outbreaks, with only a handful of individuals required to isolate.

Where were outbreaks reported?

Outbreaks were reported in schools across the state, in urban, rural, and suburban areas. Charter schools, private schools, and traditional K-12 schools reported outbreaks. Outbreaks were reported in schools with all grade levels.

What do these numbers say about about the safety of reopening classrooms?

With a new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 appearing in Michigan, data from the fall have a limited ability to predict how safe classrooms will be now.

In any case, researchers who looked at the safety of Michigan classrooms during the fall didn’t even use these numbers.

Instead, they tracked how COVID-19 moved through communities, then linked those numbers with school reopenings. Two papers that used a version of this method — including one focused on Michigan — found that reopening schools didn’t accelerate the spread of COVID-19 in communities, as long as cases were low or moderate (below 21 daily cases per 100,000 people, according to one estimate).

The conclusion: Schools were able to limit the spread of COVID-19 inside their buildings as long as the virus wasn’t raging out of control in their communities.

Researchers don’t know whether that will hold true this spring.

Do schools close when there is an outbreak?

Sometimes. In lucky cases, health officials determine that the infected people only had contact with a few others, and the school can continue operating while only a handful of people isolate at home. Masking, social distancing, good ventilation, and small class sizes can reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

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