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Despite governor’s urging, local students return to classrooms after spring break

BERRIEN COUNTY – Students around Berrien County left for spring break on April 2, and returned to classrooms with their peers on Monday.

Despite urges by Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday for schools to take a two-week break from both sport and in-person instruction to slow the spread of COVID-19, Brandywine Community Schools, Buchanan Community Schools and Niles Community Schools kept to plans to have in-person instruction.

“We listened to the governor on Friday,” said Niles Community Schools Superintendent Dan Applegate, of the area superintendents. “We all met with the Berrien RESA and Berrien County health officials within an hour. We discussed the recommendations.”

Applegate said the schools looked to the Berrien County Health Department for guidance.

“Anytime you look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, they all say to talk to your local health officials,” Applegate said. “We try to figure out what is locally the best thing to do.”

The BCHD’s guidance concluded that in-person instruction would be best.

“In Berrien County, there has been a rise in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of March moving from an average of 23 cases per day on March 5 to an average of 50 cases per day on March 29,” said a letter signed by BCHD Health Officer Nicki Britten and Medical Director/Pediatrician Rick Johansen. “Since March 29, cases have remained flat with 10 straight days of no appreciable increases. While there are many regions in the state with exceptionally high rates of new COVID-19 cases, Berrien County has one quarter the rate of new cases per day compared to areas currently the hardest hit in Michigan.”

Buchanan Community Schools Superintendent Patricia Robinson sent a letter to school families on Friday that stated the school would be closely monitoring COVID-19 information.

“In the days ahead, consistent and careful reviews of data will determine the ability to continue in-person learning and/or spring sports,” Robinson said in the letter. “Everyone will have to do their part to keep in-person learning available to the students of Berrien County.”

In the letter, she urges families to continue to social distance, wash hands, wear masks as directed and to not send students who are ill to school.

Brandywine Community Schools Superintendent Karen Weimer also released a letter on Friday to families.

“Our area is one of the few in the state where nearly every school district has been able to offer in-person instruction in August and has continued to keep their doors open for the past seven months,” Weimer said in the letter. “This progress can directly be attributed to educators’ commitment to safety, including cohorting of students, practical social distancing, frequent hand-washing, participating in daily health screenings and wearing facial coverings.”

Students involved in spring sports will now need to be tested weekly for COVID-19 due to a recent Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Order.

Applegate said the Niles Community Schools athletes began tests last week.

“The last thing we want to do is shut down sports,” Applegate said. “That was mentioned [by health officials] that before we shut down schools was to look at shutting down sports. It is a controversial thing. I want [students] to be academically successful and have the opportunity to have those extracurricular activities.”

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