Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says students, facing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, had not returned to school this year. (Bridge file photo)

On the first day of school, 8,000 Detroit students were missing. They weren’t present for face-to-face instruction nor did they appear for online learning. Some hadn’t been seen since they left school in March when coronavirus caused schools to close and send students home.

Detroit Public Schools Community District and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti put out a call to action on Oct. 2 asking Detroiters to leave friendly phone messages and to knock on household doors of students who have been disengaged since the first day of school. The campaign helped the district reach more than 3,000 students before the biannual Count Day on Wednesday, a statewide census that helps determine state funding. But a group of students who have been present since the first day planned a Count Day sick-out to have their voices heard.

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DPSCD has a history of chronic absenteeism, which Vitti’s administration has worked to curb. About 38 percent of DPSCD students were chronically absent or on track to be chronically absent during the 2019-20 school year compared to 63 percent of DPSCD students this year. 

Students were sent home in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. This left many without the tools to engage in virtual classrooms due to lack of access to broadband service and computers. Since then, DPSCD has been able to secure laptops for every student and the school board approved a reopening plan over the summer that allows students the option to attend school virtually or face-to-face this fall.  

Vitti told the community that Detroit students had not returned to school because of the toll the coronavirus pandemic took on families and students. He said the pandemic has created hardships, loss of loved ones, financial strain, depression and lack of support. He said that’s why some students aren’t  present for school, virtually or in-person.

In an email to BridgeDetroit, Vitti wrote: “As a district, we are committed to creating a learning environment where students want to attend daily. We are doing everything we can as a district to meet students and families where they are, which includes both online and face to face learning options.”

The district has been known to incentivize students who attended school on Count Day with pizza parties and fun activities in the past. This year the district opted for a media blitz of encouraging social media messages from Detroit celebrities like Big Sean and Hill Harper, among others.

The state Legislature was forced to adapt to the circumstances of coronavirus to support public schools and alleviate the potential loss of school funding. The State School Aid Act was amended this summer to accommodate districts who would ultimately have lower enrollment and attendance rates given the pandemic. Virtual learning was not included in Count Day activities, previously. 

Craig Thiel, research director at Citizens Research Council, said lawmakers had to place a heavier weight on school attendance during the 2019-20 school year rather than the current year.

“The actual counting of butts in seats is inoperable because of the pandemic,” Thiel said.

Originally, the formula used to determine student attendance included a 90/10 per pupil blended weight, meaning a greater emphasis was on the student’s attendance during the current school year and 10 percent on the previous year. This year, and for this school year only, the Legislature determined a 25/75 per pupil weight, putting a greater emphasis on the student’s attendance during the 2019-20 school year.

Thiel says that  even with the change, it’s difficult to predict the impact on school funding for next year. The district has a history of piling debt with deteriorating buildings. In 2016, DPSCD borrowed millions from the state School Revolving Fund, and in 2019 met the cap on allowed millages at 13. Vitti said last month that the Financial Review Commission will vote to remove DPS and DPSCD from oversight. This will be the first time the district has had full financial independence in years.

“Because we’ve moved to online learning, how many kids are going to engage in the [in-person] process, that’s something we don’t know,” he said. “Then we have this added factor of kids who are intentionally not attending school today as a protest.”

But it’s unclear how many disengaged students participated in the sick-out versus students who may be absent for other reasons.  

Grassroot advocacy groups Black Lives Matter in All Capacities (BLMIAC) and Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (DAYUM) hosted the sick-out and did extensive outreach to their peers on time-limited social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to spread their message. BLMIAC has more than 1,400 followers on Instagram and DAYUM has over 1,300. The students held a press conference for local media on Wednesday morning during school hours.

Evamelo Oleita, a member of both groups, said the high school students chose to hold their second sick-out of the year on Count Day because of its importance to the district. Oleita and Ama Russell, both seniors at Cass Technical High School, said BLMIAC has requested changes to the daily schedule, which currently requires students spend several hours at a time on Zoom calls. They say the structure does not support students’ social-emotional welfare and negates their mental health needs. The high school seniors say no changes have been made.

Their solution: The Students Matter Schedule, which reduces daily screen time by about three hours. Instead of class instruction, students would participate in asynchronous learning, prerecorded video lessons, or game-based learning to complete individually.

Oleita and Russell said they have scheduled several meetings with Vitti in the last few weeks to discuss the difficulties of virtual learning but said he has canceled their meetings.

We are listening and a team is working to offer alternative scheduling options for Q2. Surveys are being prepared to go out so each family can address their students learning needs. This is work in progress and we appreciate the feedback. Let’s work together to problem-solve.

— DPSCommunityDistrict (@Detroitk12) October 7, 2020

After the sick-out some students took to social media to reach Vitti on Wednesday evening. The superintendent and the district have used Twitter to say a survey would be sent to parents and students to help school administration determine changes for the second quarter, which begins in November.

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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