By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, PBS NewsHour

As the first snows of the season begin to fall in Michigan, school leaders dealing with staffing shortages across their districts are facing yet another conundrum: what to do about a flu season that’s arrived alongside a major spike in COVID-19 cases.

There were more new cases in Michigan per population over seven days last week than in any other state according to the CDC. School districts have responded in various ways, by reverting to a combination of remote and in-person instruction, or making abrupt decisions to cancel classes altogether – sometimes in advance, sometimes with little notice.

READ MORE: Schools across the country are struggling to find staff. Here’s why

With a flu outbreak at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, flu diagnoses throughout the county also increased, according to the Washtenaw County Health Department. Between October 6 and Nov 15, University of Michigan officials reported 528 cases of influenza, which prompted a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to travel to Michigan to investigate. Influenza A was identified as the predominant strain, and 77 percent of those cases were in individuals who had not been vaccinated for flu.

“While we often start to see some flu activity now, the size of this outbreak is unusual,” Juan Luis Marquez, medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department, said in a statement. “This outbreak doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact on the broader local community, but it does raise concerns about what the flu season may bring.”

Noting the rise in respiratory illnesses and the infectiousness of the current COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) issued a public health advisory last week for individuals to wear face masks in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status; for public establishments to implement masking policies and encourage compliance; and for individuals who are not fully vaccinated or who are immunocompromised to avoid large crowds or gatherings.

Ann Arbor’s public schools, for example, made the decision to close the entire week of Thanksgiving, rather than take the usual three days off for the holiday. “We’re just exploding with cases,” Jeanice Swift, the district’s superintendent, said, noting that both vaccinated teachers and children age 5 to 11 were getting sick.

At least 25 other Michigan school districts have done the same this week in the wake of the virus spike, at a time when districts were already experimenting with the school calendar.

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