Detroit district halts in-person learning due to growing number of COVID-19 cases in the city

First and second graders at Harms Elementary School learn about COVID safety on the first day of classes, Sept. 8. The Detroit district announced Thursday it is suspending in-person classes until January.
First and second graders at Harms Elementary School learn about COVID safety on the first day of classes, Sept. 8. The Detroit district announced Thursday it is suspending in-person classes until January. (Valaurian Waller/Bridge Detroit)

The Detroit school district is suspending in-person learning and its learning centers until at least Jan. 11 due to an increase of positive COVID-19 cases in the city. The closures are effective beginning Friday. 

The announcement comes as the public health crisis escalates in the state. Positive cases have surged in the city and across Michigan to levels higher than what the state experienced in the spring. Hospital executives warned Thursday that hospitalization rates are rapidly rising. And for weeks, districts across the state — including those in West Bloomfield, Troy, and Bloomfield Hills — have abandoned their in-person lessons for virtual learning. Others that started the year online with plans to move to face-to-face classes around this time have said they won’t make that transition.

Similar decisions are being made across the U.S. On Thursday, Indianapolis health officials ordered all K-12 schools to return to virtual learning.

In Detroit, district leaders made it clear before the beginning of the school year that in-person learning would be halted if positivity rates crept up to 5% to 7%. 

“Based on this week’s reporting, the infection rate will reach 6% or higher by Friday. There are no signs that these rising numbers will decrease soon,” superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote in an email sent to staff around 2:30 a.m. Thursday. 

“The district reopens after winter break on Jan. 4. If positivity rates decrease by that point, then it will allow the district and schools time to reorganize for the continuation of in-person learning.” 

Full online learning across the district will begin Monday. Vitti said in his email that it was important to give families a couple of days to prepare. 

Schools will remain open to distribute laptops to families, academic materials, meals, and medical support from nurses. Starting Dec. 1, the district will open 12 technology support sites, where parents can get help with online learning, device repair, and replacement. 

The decision to suspend in-person learning is the latest challenge for the Detroit district. Just 25% of the district’s students opted to attend school in person. And some of the students learning online have complained about glitches and schedules that are too packed. 

Vitti had urged school administrators to consider offering face-to-face or hybrid learning options for the second quarter if enough staff were willing to work inside school buildings. He has been a strong proponent for in-person learning.

Last month, Vitti reported that enrollment on the official Count Day was down by about 3,000 students. Enrollment declines have been reported across the state and nation. 

Iris Taylor, president of the Detroit school board, said in a statement that the priority now is the safety of students.

“We are listening and making the necessary adjustments to uphold our commitment to provide the best public education option for Detroit’s students and that their opportunity is equitable for every family,” Taylor said.

Since the beginning of the school year on Sept. 8, 81 students and staff known to the district have tested positive for COVID, including 10 in the last week. State data show the district has COVID outbreaks at Earhart, Munger and Western International. Schools are considered an outbreak site if local health departments report two or more cases of COVID-19 on school grounds, and if the patients may have shared exposure on school grounds and are from different households. The three outbreaks in the district involve staff.

In addition to the students who were enrolled in face-to-face classes, some students have spent their school day in learning centers, which were created for them to complete their online classes inside school buildings. The learning centers, which were staffed by nonteachers, primarily benefited working parents who needed a safe place for their children to learn during the school day. The district said it would keep those centers open through Monday to support parents struggling to find an alternative means of support for their children.

The health and safety of students and staff inside school buildings has been a top concern in Detroit. Some parents and teachers protested against the decision to resume face-to-face instruction when schools reopened on Sept. 8. Some have continued to organize protests, with one held as recently as last week. The district has made considerable investments in COVID-safety protocols, such as masks, increased cleaning supplies, and the district reduced face-to-face class sizes. 

District parent Ebony Graves’ two children were taking face-to-face classes at Schulze Academy of Technology and Arts. Graves said the transition to virtual learning will be challenging, but agrees with the decision. 

“It is what it is at this point. Cases are going up. There’s nothing I can do or say. I’m not mad about it. We have to do what we have to do to keep people safe,” she said. “I’m a healthcare worker and I know how crucial it is right now. This is the best solution.” 

The activist group By Any Means Necessary had urged the district to shut down in-person learning this fall. BAMN activist and district teacher Ben Royal called the district’s decision a victory for the people of Detroit but said schools should not reopen at all this school year. 

“The schools just need to remain closed until the pandemic is contained,” Royal said, citing a need for mass testing and a vaccine. “We need a plan to make sure virtual education succeeds. Any talk about returning is just premature. We can’t keep having that conversation.”

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