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DPSCD students can't go back to school unless more teachers do

Empty classroom
Kevin Wong
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Classrooms could get crowded if cuts go through.

Many Detroit public school students would go back to their classrooms in-person, if their teachers would do the same. 


A survey conducted earlier this month by the Detroit Public Schools Community District found that 40% of students would prefer in-person instruction to virtual learning.


When schools re-opened on March 8, about 9,000 students in the district returned to classrooms or “learning labs” where they are supervised by educators during virtual lessons, according to the district.But there are an additional 19,000 students who would like to be in school, but there aren’t enough teachers who have volunteered to return to classrooms, DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a virtual press conference on Wednesday.


"There's an imbalance between parent demand and teacher supply because teachers have the option not to work in person,” he said. 


Teachers are not obligated to return schools, as per an agreement between the DPSCD and the Detroit Federation of Teachers.


Vitti said that the number of teachers who have volunteered to be back in the classroom has increased recently, but noted that DPSCD would need 1,000 more teachers to volunteer in order to accommodate all the students who indicated they would prefer in-person instruction to a fully virtual classroom. About 500 Detroit public school teachers began working at school sites this month. 


Teachers receive an additional $750 a quarter as hazard pay for returning to work in person, a figure Vitti said he would consider increasing through funds recently allocated through the federal government as part of its most recent COVID-19 relief package. 


“I also think we are going to go back and re-engage teachers through teacher engagement sessions in the next couple of weeks after spring break to explain our safety commitments,” he said. 


Students and staff who have returned to the Detroit public school system go through regular temperature checks and COVID-19 screenings, and adhere to social distancing guidelines. According to Vitti, the only cases of the virus tied to the DPSCD have come through the district’s basketball teams, and there have been no instances of students transmitting the virus to staff members. 


All Michigan teachers are eligible to receive the vaccine since January, but school districts cannot require them to get the shots or to inform their employers about their inoculation status. 


Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who chairs the Detroit Public School board, said she’s hopeful that more teachers will return to classrooms next quarter, especially as the district begins randomized COVID-19 testing. 


“The comfort level for some teachers, obviously, from the data, it's increasing,” she said. “However, for others, they may never get there, and so that's a decision that they have to make.” 


Vitti, the superintendent, said that he’s heard a lot of “frustration” from parents, as well as students in a high school leadership program he heads.


“A lot of them are eager to come back and we're disappointed that they couldn't come back because their teacher wasn't back,” he said, and recognized that some students would prefer to continue remote-learning, but said that having schools closed has had an impact. “Their grades are declining, our failure rates are increasing. And for the social interaction [aspect], they miss their peers.”


The school district worked with partners in the business community to donate tablets and laptops to students, and ensure they had internet access. But, Vitti said, if the status quo of most students in a remote-only learning environment holds he expects that 50% of Detroit public school students will be chronically absent by the end of the year as per state criteria, and there could be as much as a 15% increase in failure rates when compared to pre-pandemic figures.


The district plans to launch summer programs and after-school initiatives to help address the gaps in learning caused by the pandemic with the support of a huge influx in funds from the coronavirus relief package issued by Congress earlier this month. Vitti said DPSCD is expecting to receive $750 million in additional federal funding. Twenty percent of the funding is earmarked to address the issue of learning loss.


Vitti said he also plans to use the influx in funds to ensure that schools maintain a close watch over COVID-19, increase math and literacy support staff for students, offer bonuses to teachers eligible for retirement, and provide additional transportation to students in less crowded vehicles.


With the latest tranche in relief funding filling in for additional pandemic-related expenses, Vitti said the district can increase efforts to address pressing infrastructure needs across schools. 


The DPSCD Finance Committee will meet on Friday to begin allocating funds.

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.