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As COVID cases surge across Michigan, Detroit school board extends pause on in-person learning

A group of students wearing masks look at a book on a desk together
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Update: 8:55 p.m.

At a meeting on Thursday evening, Detroit public school board members adopted a plan to maintain a pause on in-person instruction through May 11. The district will open schools for learning labs where students receive staff oversight on virtual learning on April 26. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district would consider suspending all in-person instruction through the end of the school year if the current COVID-19 surge continues. Positivity rates on COVID tests in Detroit are 20%.

Original post: 6:24 p.m.  

The Detroit Public School Board nearly voted earlier this week this to end in-person learning through the end of the year in a vote that was overturned on a technicality since two board members were absent from the meeting.

The emergency vote followed an intense public comment period in which school staff called on members to “have the courage to keep our schools closed” amid the current COVID-19 surge in the region, and the vote will be taken up again in a special session Thursday evening.

“The reality is that the schools cannot be safely reopened until all students are vaccinated and COVID testing confirms that coronavirus is no longer spreading in our community,” said a teacher named Benjamin Royal during a school board meeting on Tuesday. He is a member of the Detroit Federation of teacher's BAMN caucus, which has spearheaded the call for schools to remain closed.

Michigan leads the nation in new COVID cases, and most of its current outbreaks are associated with schools in Michigan. According to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 264 ongoing outbreaks are associated with K-12 schools. That’s more than 100 more outbreaks than the second highest site of spread, the manufacturing and construction industry. Detroit is the largest school district in the state with about 50,000 students in a city that was battered by COVID at the onset of the pandemic and now faces a 20% positivity rate.

Many school staff members pointed to this data in expressing sharp criticism for the school district’s plan to re-open for in-person learning on April 26, after a three week closure that included a weeklong break. Their comments followed a presentation by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti in which he cited a different set of troubling numbers, including a 10 percentage point increase in chronic absenteeism among Detroit Public School students since before the pandemic, which he suggested arose partly from a dearth of in-person learning options for students.

"It's hard to not make the argument and this is where I think we just use common sense, is that if students are able to come to school on a day to day basis, there's a routine set with that,” Vitti said, adding that students who are learning remotely are nearly two times as likely to have failed one course a quarter.

A district survey of parents before the current surge in COVID cases found that 19,000 would like to attend school in person, but cannot due to a lack of teachers who have volunteered to teach in person. Teachers are not required to return to school in person because of an agreement made with their union in August.

“As we think about where we are vis-a-vis other districts, especially surrounding districts that often recruit our students, we have to be mindful with the learning options that we're providing students now and as we go into the future,” Vitti said.

He also said he had seen former Detroit public school children getting on a River Rouge school bus, a move he believed was because that district offers more in-person learning options.

“We’re closed and most of our employees are home. That’s vastly different than other districts. But how long is that sustainable?” Vitti said, cautioning, “We do not want to go back to where we were under emergency management, where we were losing students.”

Since being named school superintendent in 2017, Vitti has fulfilled early promises to balance the district’s long-beleaguered budget, raise enrollment, and academic outcomes for students. At the school board meeting more than a year into the pandemic, he expressed concern for a backslide in each of those areas.

As someone who seems most comfortable when referencing surveys and data, Vitti began to grow exasperated in his concern for the future of the school district. At least from a financial perspective, he hedged that concern OVER losing funding due to declining student enrollment with the huge boon of COVID relief aid, including the most recent cache of $750 million — an amount which will effectively double the district’s operating budget.

The schools that have been opened in the district meet federal guidelines for ventilation, social distancing, and COVID testing, and, Vitti said that all the infections tied to the school district resulted from extracurricular activities.

“What I feel is our responsibility is to add to the COVID safety strategies,” in order to make teachers feel more safe in returning to classrooms. And yet Vitti also said he was considering a plan to open schools even as infections go beyond the trigger of 5% COVID test positivity rate that breaches the “lowest risk of transmission in schools” metric set by the CDC, saying that as vaccination rates increase and the district rolls out regular twice weekly tests for students and staff it might be done safely, although he acknowledged that the district could not make COVID tests mandatory.

That proposal drew especially heated responses from school staff members, including paraprofessionals who do not have the choice to work from home as teachers do. One woman who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting on Tuesday said she resigned instead of having to work in person when the district re-opened with staff overseeing virtual lessons in its “learning centers.”

“I was not going to be forced to come to work, not voluntarily, but be forced to come to work and risk infecting my kid with COVID,” she said, adding that her daughter has a compromised medical condition that puts her at additional risk from the virus.

“There is no way we should even entertain the idea of reopening schools for the rest of the school year, at least until children can get the vaccine,” said Nicole Conaway, a teacher and organizer with DFT's BAMN caucus. She took issue with Vitti’s references to other school districts which offer more in-person instruction. “How about we be the district that does the right thing, that makes the right decision for our community?”

“This is what keeps me up at night,” Vitti said during the meeting. “Finding the right balance.”

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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