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Detroit faith leaders call for more teachers to get vaccinated and return to the classroom

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio

Faith leaders stood alongside Detroit public school officials in calling for more teachers to get vaccinated and return to classrooms. 

“We have a superintendent, we have a board that are working together to make sure that our school system is ready to receive children,” said Bishop Charles Ellis of Greater Grace Temple. “But we must not just have good buildings, sanitized buildings. We need the workforce.” 

Only about 600 teachers have returned to classrooms out of about 3,000, according to Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. An agreement with the district’s teachers union made teaching in-person voluntary.

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Terrence Martin said that agreement was made in August, before there were vaccines or a clear sense of the efficacy of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said that union members who have toured school buildings over the last few months found that mitigation strategies including social distancing and mask-wearing were being implemented. Those efforts, paired with vaccination — and the $500 incentive from the district for getting the shot — has eased concerns about in-person teaching. About 60 percent of teachers are currently vaccinated. 

Martin stressed that the health and safety of teachers would remain the union’s top priority as it works out a re-opening agreement with school administrators, since the current agreement expires on June 30. 

“We want to move forward with caution,” Martin said. “But with optimism that at some point next school year, we can return to face-to-face instruction.” 

Only about 1,000 students are currently receiving in-person instruction. Another 7,000 out of about 50,000 students in the district attend learning centers where they are able to get support for online learning by school staff. 

“I understand the concerns also, but from a parent perspective it's like, hey, we're doing all this to show you that we want you back, that we are behind you,” said Sharene Nathan. Her daughter attends a learning lab, but she said she would have preferred in-person instruction but the option wasn’t available since so few teachers have returned to their classrooms. 

“We are not just saying come back to just anything, we're saying, come back to a safe environment because our kids really do need you,” she added, noting that her daughter, who is autistic, has been struggling without the guidance of her teacher and interaction with her peers. 

Nathan has been canvassing for the school district, and said she’s heard similar concerns from students and parents. Some older students, she said, have opted to receive G.E.Ds instead of complete high school through remote learning, while others have tuned out their education entirely. 

Nearly 75% of students in the district have been chronically absent this academic year, meaning they have missed 18 or more days of school. 

The school district is expanding its offering of summer learning programs with support from federal coronavirus relief aid in hopes that students who have struggled with the mostly online learning options over the last year can go over coursework, but also re-engage with fellow students. So far, 5,000 students have signed up to participate in the “summer experience,” and the district is hoping that a total of 10,000 will participate. 

In addition to academic work, students will be able to participate in arts, music, and athletic programs. “Our students have been isolated in homes,” said Superintendent Vitti. 

“These activities are going to bring them together to just talk and honestly have fun again.”

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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