Federal judge orders Detroit summer school students taking face-to-face classes to be tested for COVID by Friday

This Detroit school is among 26 sites offering summer school classes in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. (Eleanore Catolico)

A federal judge is ordering all Detroit students who are attending summer school to be tested for COVID-19 before the end of the week.

The order is part of a lawsuit — now moved to federal court — brought by an activist group that wants to halt the Detroit school district’s in-person summer school classes.

About 650 students are attending the face-to-face classes, while about a thousand more are taking virtual summer classes.

The group By Any Means Necessary, which filed the lawsuit, has been holding protests regularly  since classes began July 13. Their protests have often blocked school buses from leaving to pick students up to take them to school. More than a dozen protesters have been arrested, according to media reports. The group filed a lawsuit last week.

What’s unclear are the potential implications of the order. U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow is ordering one-time testing. Whether students will have to continue to be tested remains to be seen. Summer school runs through Aug. 13. It is also unclear whether the order — or any possible outcome of the lawsuit — could affect in-person summer classes taking place in other parts of the state. 

The district will be able to continue operating summer school the rest of this week, as the testing is taking place.

The district reported Tuesday evening that the city of Detroit’s health department will provide free, rapid testing for the summer school students.

“When we heard the judge ordered ... students to be tested in the next five days, we made immediate arrangements to allow the schools to comply. The City of Detroit has the testing capacity to respond to these types of urgent needs,” Denise Fair, chief public health officer for the city, said in a statement released by the district.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement that beginning this week, the parents of students attending in-person classes will be able to decide whether to have their children tested. The tests will be done through via a nasal swab.

“These tests will be done at school to reduce the burden on parents if their consent is given. Results will be returned in 30 minutes,” Vitti said. 

During a court hearing Tuesday afternoon, district attorney Jenice Mitchell Ford objected to Tarnow’s order. Ford said the district is complying with state guidelines, none of which require testing.

She said it “does create a bit of an undue burden,” on district families.

“It creates inequitability,” Ford said.

Vitti echoed that in a statement, saying the district doesn’t oppose the student testing. He said the district, however, continues to question “the legal authority to require parents to have their child tested to receive public school educational services, the inequity of requiring our students to test and other districts and schools not requiring the testing, and the burden it places on our parents who are already overwhelmed.”

Tarnow’s order was part of a temporary restraining order the two sides are ironing out. The district is already screening students daily for COVID symptoms, including checking their temperatures. The district also required that all staff teaching in person be tested prior to the start of summer classes. 

The Detroit district isn’t the only one conducting face-to-face summer classes. A small group of high school students are taking summer school classes in the Novi Community Schools district.

Tarnow argued that the injustice applies to students attending other schools that aren’t requiring testing.

“The people who should be complaining are the people in the suburbs or other parts of the state who are not required to go through a test. The injustice … is that they are in school that could be — emphasis on the could — could be unsafe.”

Tarnow ordered testing to begin Wednesday and be completed by Friday. Ford attempted to move the deadline to next week. Shanta Driver, the attorney for the activist group, objected.

“This is an urgent matter,” Driver said. “This is the district trying to use stalling tactics.”

Tarnow said that if a student tests positive for COVID, the district will have to follow whatever protocols it has in place. In an interview last week, this is what Vitti said would happen if there are positive cases during summer school:

“If a student has a confirmed case or an employee, then we will clearly identify what groups of students and adults have interacted with each other in close proximity over a long period of time,” Vitti said.

That process will be easier to control because students will remain in the same classroom throughout the day, Vitti said.

Those identified as having been in contact with someone who tested positive will be asked to quarantine and their classes would shift online. The district is in the process of distributing tablets, with keyboards, that students can use for virtual classes. It’s part of a $23 million philanthropic effort to bridge the gap that exists in access to technology for Detroit students.

“We would also inform all the parents directly who could have been exposed,” Vitti said.

Vitti said a full school closure could be required, but “It would depend on the case and how much movement that student had in the building. Those are decisions that we would make in concert with the health department.”

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