Amid criticism and anger from parents and teachers, Detroit school board approves fall reopening plan

The tempers that flared during Tuesday’s board meeting help illustrate a nationwide debate over the reopening of schools. (Eleanore Catolico)

The Detroit school board Tuesday approved its fall reopening plan to provide remote and in-person learning, shortly before angry parents and community members blasted the district’s efforts to send children back to school. 

Many school board members acknowledged criticism of the reopening plan, noting people are uneasy about in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We do not take lightly the safety of children we are responsible for,” said board president Iris Taylor. “We’ve taken ... every challenge that we’ve had very seriously, we’ve put forth the best knowledge possible ... If the landscape changes, then the plan will adjust.” 

The tempers that flared during Tuesday’s board meeting help illustrate a nationwide debate over the reopening of schools. The Trump administration has threatened to cut off federal funding to states if schools don’t fully reopen. But many educators have said the public health risks of face-to-face learning outweigh concerns over learning loss. 

The district is preparing for most of its 51,000 students to return to classrooms this fall, although some parents may choose a virtual learning option instead. Holding in-person classes will pose the Herculean task of enforcing safety protocols across the district’s roughly 100 schools. 

The district’s reopening plan was shaped in response to parent demand for in-person learning. In a spring survey of nearly 4,000 district parents, 61% said they were prepared to send students back to classrooms in the fall, if safety measures were taken.

“We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach for our children. We never do,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “Our children are calling. We have to figure out how to serve them.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has warned that Michigan K-12 schools will not reopen in the fall if positive coronavirus cases continue to rise, and the district is preparing to transition to full virtual learning if necessary. 

The plan’s implementation is already underway: 25 school buildings opened for in-person summer school Monday. It’s a key test for the Detroit district to ensure that in-person learning can be done safely.

In-person summer school has been met with protestors who have blocked district buses from departing its terminals for two days. Vitti reported earlier Tuesday that some protesters began blocking parents from dropping off their children to school. 

Tuesday, nearly 600 students attended in-person summer school, up from the 500 who came to classes Monday, Vitti said. About 1,100 students logged into their virtual classrooms Tuesday, compared with 420 on Monday. Those attendance numbers fall short of the 4,000 students who signed up for summer school. 

In response to protesters criticizing teachers who are volunteering in summer school, Vitti delivered a passionate rebuke: “It is a shame to call any of our fellow teachers a traitor. That is unconscionable.”

Vitti pointed out that other Michigan school districts are offering in-person summer school, including the Novi Community School District. He also said many child care centers across the state have been providing in-person services for the last month. Some child care centers have stayed open throughout the pandemic, offering services to children of essential workers.

After the plan was approved, many parents and teachers still expressed outrage. 

“I urge you to protect our community right now. This is about children and their needs. They need to stay alive,” said Marnina Falk, a teacher in the Detroit district. 

“You are asking teachers to risk their health, their families’ health, to return to work in conditions we know are not safe,” said Detroit district teacher Torie Anderson. “If it’s safe to return, why are we holding this board meeting via Zoom?” 

Long-time activist Helen Moore questioned the decision to reopen schools. In the spring, Moore had to self-quarantine after one of the teachers at the Detroit school where she volunteered contracted coronavirus. 

“Our students’ lives are in jeopardy,” she said. 

Board treasurer Sonya Mays proposed a virtual town hall to foster dialogue with the school community. 

“There’s been so much disconnect around communication,” she said. “This board should consider taking steps ... to show people, other stakeholders, the range of information that goes into the policy decision-making in regards to the pandemic and school reopening.” 

Board member Corletta Vaughn agreed with Mays’ sentiment. “It’s important that they see us and hear us on all our different perspectives,” she said.

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