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

UPDATE: Detroit schools will reopen in the fall even if the Legislature takes action

There were 500 students in Detroit Public Schools Community District classrooms Monday morning, according to a tweet from Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Those students were greeted by community members protesting in-classroom learning.

The optional classes are just a preamble to the fall semester when school districts must decide whether to bring back in-classroom teaching or continue online learning. Much debate, misconception and misinformation has surfaced across the Detroit community on how school will operate this fall. For a district that has struggled to maintain its infrastructure to provide essentials like clean water for students, many question if DPSCD has the resources to protect students in a pandemic.  

Related: No band, buses or sports? Budget cuts could cripple Michigan schools

Now, policymakers at the federal level are politicizing the situation by threatening to withhold federal funding from districts that refuse to allow in-classroom teaching. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has released a set of criteria to re-open, local districts will ultimately determine how students will learn this fall.

Wayne County has lost more than 2,600 lives to the coronavirus pandemic since March with nearly 1,500 in Detroit alone. Detroiters have felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic harder than most where nearly 12,000 cases have been reported. Thousands have lost their jobs as a result of businesses shut down during the pandemic. 

“What’s complicated is I’m a teacher, I love what I do, I love my students and I genuinely care about my students learning,” said Gavin Buckley, a local teacher. “I live in the same neighborhood as a lot of my students and I know distance learning is not working for them. But I would rather my students survive COVID-19.”

“What’s complicated is I’m a teacher, I love what I do, I love my students and I genuinely care about my students learning,” Gavin Buckley, a local teacher. “I live in the same neighborhood as a lot of my students and I know distance learning is not working for them. But I would rather my students survive COVID-19.”

Buckely, a high school social studies teacher, is a member of MI-CORE, a group of educators who advocate for additional education funding. Buckley said he’s talked to teachers across the state who want their students back in the classroom. However, he said those same teachers don’t want to rush back in if it isn’t safe for them to do so.

“It’s because we care about our students so much that we can’t sleep at night knowing we’re putting them in danger,” he said. “That goes completely counter to what our job is as a teacher.”

DPSCD released a draft reopening plan in June. The district has allowed community members to share their thoughts and questions about the fall semester through an online portal. The 42-page plan will be reviewed by the school board during Tuesday’s meeting.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Whitmer released the MI Safe Schools: Michigan’s 2020-2021 Return to School Roadmap crafted by a Return to School Advisory Council and the COVID-19 Task Force on Education on June 30. The 63-page document outlines a list of safety requirements and recommendations for all Michigan school districts based on the governor’s six-phase approach to reopening the state. There are four school reopening scenarios listed for Fall 2020, including no in-person instruction at all.

According to the document, all safety protocols on cleaning and disinfection come from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. The advisory council and the Department of Education will provide supplemental resources to support schools and districts moving forward.

State Superintendent Michael Rice said community members need to know that in-classroom teaching will not resume in the fall until the state has reached Phase 4 of the governor’s reopening plan. This is especially important given the U.S. Secretary of Education’s threats to withhold federal funding from districts that won’t allow in-classroom learning in the fall.

“The secretary of education has no authority to withhold funding from a state or local school district because she disagrees with their choice to reopen,” Rice said.  

The secretary’s threat came just after the Department of Education pleaded for federal support earlier this summer to avoid an 8.4 percent cut in per-student funding from last school year.

“We need more funding for the education of our young people in a pandemic for a host of reasons, for PPE, for additional learning to make up for the difficult challenges of the last third of the last school year,” Rice said. “We certainly don’t need less funding for children.”

The superintendent applauded Michigan’s educators for putting on an ‘enormous effort’ to continue teaching students during a time with extenuating circumstances. He said that education will continue this fall, whether in-person or remotely, depending on school safety.

Tonya Allen, President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation in Detroit, is chair of the 25-member advisory council that worked with the COVID-19 education task force to create the roadmap. She said the group approached their work by thinking about science, safety, students, and educators. Allen said she’s received over 4,000 emails from community members who wanted to help determine how schools should or should not reopen in the fall.

“My standard around this is I have to be able to go to sleep at night making recommendations to take care of everybody’s kids the same way I would want for my child,” she said.

Allen said there are a lot of variables to consider, including academic lags, developmental challenges, risks to public health, and the safety of educators.

“We were thinking about our educators and knowing and understanding that we have a teacher shortage and an aging population across the state,” she said. “How do we keep teachers safe in this environment and what would make them feel comfortable enough to come back into their working environment.”

Detroit teachers are still figuring out what a safe school will look like. 

“A number of my members were vehemently opposed to in-person summer school,” Terrance Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said.

The teachers’ union is trying to encourage DPSCD to include all stakeholders in the decision-making process.The situation is still developing, but Martin said there is growing concern from local educators as the number of coronavirus cases rises again.

“Whether we return to school or not in the fall there will be a spike in this virus,” he said. “Are we spending the necessary time that we need to in order to service students at home? I believe that’s where the focus needs to be for the school district.”

Like most school districts, Detroit’s plans for the fall have not been finalized. However, draft plans show district employees will be required to test negative for COVID-19 within 1 to 14 days of returning to work and will not be required to be tested again. District employees will not be granted additional leave days at this time due to union agreements. Plans also include social distancing, PPE equipment, alternating days of in-class instruction, social-emotional support for students, families, and educators, among other items.

Social-emotional learning and children’s mental health have been a priority for the state superintendent well before the coronavirus pandemic. Rice said they will be even more important moving forward. MDE has worked with DHHS to provide materials on social-emotional learning through teletherapy during the pandemic. Rice said students rely on school for many things and not having access to all the support a school district can offer the past four months has been tough for some children.

“Our children require their educators for their warmth, their caring, their interest in them as young people, the structure of school, the affirmations they receive at school and the lessons learned,” Rice said. “Young people need school for so many different reasons.”

Allen said she knows many Michiganders will question why the Safe Schools requirements are ‘too tough’ while others will question why the requirements aren’t more rigorous. The Skillman CEO said there is no one-size-fits-all approach and the local environment of each district must be contextualized.

“When you look at Traverse City they have very few cases,” Allen said. “So, what works for them is not going to work for Detroit. They haven’t experienced the trauma that Detroit has experienced.”

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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