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Despite harsh criticism, Detroit school board approves plan for in-person learning this fall

school hallway
Detroit Public Schools
Detroit Public Schools

Michigan’s largest school district has approved a re-opening plan that includes in-person learning.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District board voted for the plan Tuesday night. It calls for schools to make a number of adaptations to manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Safety protocols will include mandatory mask-wearing, daily temperature checks, and COVID tests for staff. Some measures are more vague; the plan calls for things like “making use of all available space and scheduling flexibility to limit in-person classes to 20 students physically in one room at a time,” limiting gatherings in common areas, and staggered lunch sessions or in-class lunch so students avoid congregate situations. And there is room for flexibility as the trajectory of the pandemic changes over time.

The plan also calls for a fully online learning option, while noting the district needs to recognize and fill in gaps in its current online platform, and get needed flexibility from the state to ensure online learning counts as full-time instruction.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Detroit families wanted both options. “Online learning will work for some children and some families, and we will continue to provide that as an option,” he said. “But so is face-to-face instruction.”

Vitti conceded that adjusting to the “new normal” will be difficult, but says the district has an obligation to do its best. “What our lives look like has been transformed,” he said. “And what school will look like will be transformed.”

“But if it is required in order to receive funding and safe to do, then we have an obligation to meet our parents and children where they’re at. And for a lot of our children, a lot of our families, online learning is not an option, in order to be at grade level and to develop as whole children.”

But board members, who approved the plan unanimously, heard blistering criticism from teachers and parents who joined the online meeting via Zoom. Some blasted the district’s safety measures as inadequate, while others questioned whether they would be faithfully implemented. Others said that given the current state of the pandemic, it’s simply irresponsible to do in-person learning at all.

Terrence Martin, President of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, had this warning for Vitti and the board: “If it’s not safe, we won’t be there. Not only will we not be there, it’s not safe for children to be there.”

Martin acknowledged gaps in the district’s online program, and said it needs to “beef up distance learning.” But he questioned whether the planned safety measures are adequate.

“If you’re only going to test staff [for COVID-19] and not test students, then what good is a test?” Martin asked. “Right now, I just cannot conceivably believe that we would be considering returning to school in the fall under the current conditions."

Others brought up practical considerations they say the district has not fully addressed. For example: what happens if a teacher tests positive? How will classes be staffed, and will the teachers (and students) be expected to quarantine for the usual 14 days?

Asmara Ruth Afework, parent of an elementary school child in DPSCD, called the decision to move forward with in-person schooling “reckless.” She questioned whether the district will even be able to staff classrooms.

“Given the substitute teacher shortages that we have in regular times, on a normal basis, how will the district manage teachers being out due to self-quarantine?” Afework asked. “And if those teachers only have access to their regular sick days to quarantine, aren’t you putting all of the students, all of the staff, at risk, because people will be forced to make decisions that are unsafe and do not protect us?”

In adopting the plan, the board noted that “if the [COVID-19] landscape changes, there will be modifications to this plan moving forward.” And Vitti said the district is still waiting on a number of important directives from the state, and for full information about what the state schools budget will look like.

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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