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Detroit's public school system and teachers' union reaches deal over safety concerns

An empty classroom
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
O.k., o.k., we know this one is empty, but some high school students in the Detroit Public Schools say their classroom are far from empty.

Detroit's public school system has reached a deal with its teachers' union to avert a strike over safety concerns.

The deal includes a provision that there will be no more than 20 students in a classroom, and teachers can choose to teach all online or in person. 

Teachers will also get a $750 hazard pay bonus for each semester they teach in person.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says life is hard enough for parents in Detroit, and the pandemic has added to the stress they experience.

"And I think as a school district, if we're not willing to think differently, evolve, problem solve and serve children differently, then they're going to suffer because of that," says Vitti. "And that's just not who we are. We serve children."

Vitti says the district has learned a lot since March, including the importance of physical distancing, masks, and symptom checks to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Right now, Vitti says, coronavirus infection rates in Detroit are quite low, about 2.6%. He says he'll worry if that rate gets to 5%, and the trigger for closing schools down again will likely be 6 to 7%.  

And he thinks if there is an outbreak within the school district, it could be limited to just one classroom or one school. 

"And I think that goes back to the reality of having 108 schools geographically and really spread out, so what might be happening on the east side is not happening on the west side," he says.

Vitti says parents are still making final decisions. But it appears that roughly 38,000 students will learn online at home, and about 10,000 will be in face to face classrooms.

The district is also allowing students to sign up for "learning labs," where they come to a school building and are supervised while they do their online work. Unlike many districts that are offering similar programs, Detroit's will be free of charge.  

Vitti says about 2,000 children will likely be studying online in the learning labs.

Not all teachers are happy with the deal. Benjamin Royal teaches 5th grade. He's also a member of BAMN, an activist group that has been urging Detroit to close down schools for in-person instruction to keep students, staff, and their families safe.

"I am absolutely, unequivocally opposed to any deal that allows schools to reopen," says Royal. "This deal does nothing to limit the spread of the virus. The virus will spread wherever people congregate and especially in classrooms."

Royal says he will only agree to teach online this year.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.