The Detroit district is allowing some students to take AP exams at schools. But the teachers union is raising COVID health concerns

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, speaks during a demonstration outside Renaissance High School
Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the union wants to be involved in the planning process to ensure the health and safety of students and staff for summer school and once buildings reopen. He is seen here during a May 2019 rally. (Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat)

The Detroit school district is opening up nine of its schools over the next 10 days to allow students lacking technology to take crucial Advanced Placement exams, a plan that has raised concerns among teachers union officials.

The head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers emailed members Sunday night urging them not to volunteer to oversee the administration of the exams, citing coronavirus concerns.

But the district already had enough teachers and administrators step forward to volunteer for the exams, Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the district, said Monday afternoon.

The district is trying to accommodate the needs of about 100 students who don’t have devices or internet access at home to take AP exams. The exams are important because in most cases students can earn college credit for the AP classes if they earn a good score on the tests. The district had asked teachers to volunteer to administer the exams.

“We would not want our students to lose the opportunity to gain college credit for a course they completed. We can do this in a safe way for this limited number of students.” Wilson said.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said that the current safety precautions implemented for the testing aren’t enough. That’s why he sent the email to union members Sunday night. 

“Moving forward there’s gotta be a comprehensive plan. Is there going to be testing for all employees? Are facilities going to be sanitized? Are you going to take temperatures?” he said during an interview Monday.

The situation highlights the difficulty of trying to balance the health and safety of students and staff with the need to support student achievement — particularly in a high-poverty school district where only 10% of the students have been able to consistently take advantage of the online learning resources. Detroit has been hit hard by the pandemic, and the district has lost  some staff members to COVID-19.

Approximately 25 administrators are needed to voluntarily proctor exams during the 10-day testing period. 

Wilson also emphasized that this was a one-time effort to help students earn their college credits, and no staff members were obligated to participate.

She said that the district is actively working on a re-entry plan that addresses the health and safety of students and staff, and noted that the plan will take time to develop. The school board will host a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss the district’s preparations whenever the stay-at-home order is lifted. 

Martin said that the teachers union and health officials should also be able to contribute to drafting this plan, not just district officials. He said the issue goes beyond just AP testing, and that extra safety measures are needed for summer school and if buildings reopen in the fall. 

“There’s gotta be a full comprehensive plan on how we’re dealing with this disease. We’re just not confident that exists right now with the school district,” he said. 

The test would be administered at 45-minute intervals on designated days by subject. The district would implement some safety precautions, including providing all school staff members and students with masks and gloves. Students would be isolated in classrooms by themselves or placed in classrooms with other students, while maintaining social distancing guidelines of being 6 feet apart. 

The 100 students who lack access to a device or the internet were not able to contact the College Board, the organization that manages the AP program, to request technology that would allow them to take the test, Wilson said. 

Jerome White, a spokesman for the College Board, said “We are in touch with Detroit Public Schools to understand and address their needs.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered all school buildings closed for in-person learning through the end of this school year. Wilson said opening up buildings for the AP exams doesn’t violate that order, which she said allows school buildings to be used for distance learning and food distribution. 

“Districts shall facilitate, to the extent feasible, access to information relating to advanced placement courses and course schedules provided online by the College Board. For pupils without access to the internet or a device necessary to access the internet, districts shall facilitate, to the extent feasible, access to information regarding assistance provided by the College Board in completing examination requirements,” the order stated. 

The safety measures released by the district aren’t enough to sway Steve Conn, who teaches Advanced Placement calculus at Western International High School. He called the district’s plan “a terrible idea.” 

Conn, an outspoken teacher and former president of the union, said the plan to open buildings is unnecessary given the College Board’s offer of an at-home testing option. 

Wilson said the district contacted the College Board to extend the testing date window for students. The College Board has scheduled make up testing dates for June 1-5. Students have the option to take the test at home using a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Students may also provide handwritten responses, and submit a photo using their cell phone. 

Correction:  A previous version of this story said the Detroit district stopped asking teachers to volunteer because the teachers union wanted them to. District officials said they stopped looking for teacher volunteers because enough administrators had already volunteered.

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