The death of a high school student in Van Buren County has brought home the grim reality to area school districts that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

Giovanni Pena, a senior at Decatur High School, in eastern Van Buren County, died, Friday, Sept. 24, from COVID-19 associated symptoms. His death brought the total deaths from COVID-19 in Van Buren and Cass County to 234.

“The Decatur community grieves with the family of the student and we send our prayers for the student and the family. No one should ever had to deal with the death of their child,” Decatur Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Creagan stated.

This past week Decatur Schools, through the assistance of Van Buren Intermediate School District, provided grief counseling for students and staff on Sept. 24 and Sept. 27 to help them cope with the loss of Pena.

“Geo participated in wrestling and football and was a friend to all students,” Creagan said.

Pena’s death, which is the first student death in Van Buren County to be associated with COVID-19 during the pandemic’s fourth nationwide surge, saddened Van Buren/Cass District Health Department officials, who have been strongly encouraging students, as well as anyone else, to wear masks while indoors with the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths associated with the highly transmissable Delta variant.

“Each COVID-19 death has been heart wrenching, but the loss of a student is a tragic and stark reminder of the difficult circumstance we are in throughout our county, state and nation,” said Van Buren/Cass District Health Officer Danielle Persky in a news release. “Right now, we are seeing younger people hospitalized. They are getting sicker than in the previous surge and unfortunately some of them may not survive. Already, since the school year began, the health department has confirmed 192 COVID cases in children 0-19 across Van Buren and Cass County. Even children who are not hospitalized or very sick are contagious. Every person lost to this virus, young or old, leaves a hole in the fabric of our communities.”

Like other counties in Southwest Michigan, Van Buren and Cass have been labeled as high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control for the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. Some county public health departments, including those in Berrien, Allegan and Kalamazoo counties, have mandated indoor mask requirements for students in grades K-6, while some school districts have extended that measure to all grades and staff members.

Van Buren/Cass Health District officials however have not mandated mask requirements. Some school districts, such as South Haven, are requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors, others however, such as Decatur, do not.

Backlash by some have led to school board members in some districts, along with health department officials being verbally threatened for requiring masks to be worn in school buildings. County boards in Allegan, Barry and Kalamazoo have passed resolutions stating that their health departments have no legal right to require schools to institute indoor mask requirements, even though the resolutions do not stand up in court.

The controveries over mask wearing has left both school district and health officials bewildered especially in light of such deaths as that of Giovanni Pena.

“I ask all communities to unite, put aside their difference regarding such issues of wearing face coverings and once again become the great people of Michigan,” Creagen said.

The controversy over mask mandates is made even more difficult with the spread of the highly transmissable Delta variant, according to Van Buren/Cass district health department officials.

“The Delta variant has proven to be more contagious and more serious than previous variants,” said Dr. Larry Wile, medical director of the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department. “We have seen a 25-fold increase since one week after school ended on June 25, 2021 until now. Our community transmission data has elevated us to the highest risk category. We have hope in the form of safe and effective vaccines, but only if many more of us who are eligible and able actually take them and only if we slow the spread of this illness through masking, distancing, and quarantine and isolation. We encourage everyone to actively protect themselves and others by following proven mitigation strategies; it will take a cooperative effort from our whole community to effectively mitigate the threat of this virus.”