‘Parents should not have to make a choice’: Michigan group calls for suspension of face-to-face instruction this fall

During a virtual press conference Wednesday, members of a new group called on state leaders to adopt strict safety guidelines before reopening school buildings. (Screenshot)

A group of Michigan teachers, parents, and students is calling for school districts and political leaders across the state to adopt strict health and safety measures before in-person classes resume this fall. 

“I am not allowing any of my children to step into any schools if none of these demands are met,” said Marietta Elliott, a special education teacher and parent of four students in the Detroit school district. 

The new group — Michigan United Stakeholders and Champions of Learning and Equity —  is calling for 14 consecutive days of declining COVID cases before schools can reopen for in-person classes, regular testing and contact tracing for students and staff, an independent agency to monitor safety in schools, hazard pay for teachers with a high risk of exposure to the virus, and a state hotline to take reports of safety violations.

Their demands come as the debate grows about the reopening of schools for the fall semester, and some parents and teachers raise questions about whether face-to-face classes can be held safely. Schools nationwide closed in the spring, and shifted to remote learning to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The demands also come as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continues to sound the alarm about the rising number of positive COVID cases and the potential for that growth to impact reopening schools. Michigan reported 891 COVID cases Wednesday, the highest single-day total since May 14. Whitmer, during an afternoon press conference Wednesday, noted that there are 55 days until the official beginning of the 2020-21 school year Sept. 8.

“Whether our kids get to school depends on what we do today,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer said the state likely won’t decide until closer to the first day of school whether it’s safe to reopen schools. The number of cases, as well as the number of hospitalizations, will be key determining factors, she said.

The debate heated up in Detroit this week as the school district began summer school, which included in-person classes for hundreds of students whose parents chose that option. Protesters on Monday and Tuesday blocked buses from leaving one of the district’s bus terminals, making it difficult for students to attend classes at a handful of schools. Medically fragile children who need bus transportation to attend two of the district’s special education centers were affected the most. 

On Wednesday, a lawsuit was filed in state court against the district and the state seeking to halt the summer school. The lawsuit names Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Mayor Mike Duggan, and Whitmer, among others. It was filed by the activist group By Any Means Necessary on behalf of a group of seven individuals, including teachers, parents, a student, and other district staff. The city’s corporation counsel said in a statement that he would seek to have Duggan removed from the lawsuit, as he “had no part in deciding whether or when to have summer classes.”

Detroit isn’t the only Michigan district to hold in-person classes. Many districts nationwide have also done so, including in Newark, New Jersey, where the teacher’s union worked with the district to create a summer pilot program that is providing lessons for the fall. 

On Tuesday night, the Detroit school board approved its plan to reopen schools in the fall, despite outrage from some teachers and parents.

Until their demands are met, the group said, schools should provide remote learning for students.

Whitmer’s June 30 executive order required all Michigan K-12 school districts to submit a fall reopening plan by August 15, or seven days before the start of a district’s school year. Whitmer also released guidelines for reopening that mandated some safety requirements. 

Michigan state representative Sherry Gay Dagnogo, a former district teacher, called into the video conference pledging her support for the group. She called the current push for school reopenings “disconcerting.” 

Wendy Carlisle, a Plymouth-Canton Community Schools teacher, said she’s worried about whether teachers who test positive for COVID after returning to the classroom will have enough sick days.

“An [extended] quarantine will decimate a teacher’s sick bank,” she said. 

Some have called for the reopening of schools to relieve the pressure on parents who must work but don’t have access to child care. Valencia Cade, a Washtenaw County teacher and a charter school parent, said that isn’t fair.

“Parents should not have to make a choice and put their child in harm’s way. … Some of these parents are desperate and rely on the school system,” Cade said.

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