Summer school COVID testing mandate could have ripple effect outside of Detroit

A class in the in-school summer school program in Ecorse Public Schools shows students wearing masks and seated in desks that are socially distanced. (Josha Talison)

As the Detroit school district began COVID testing hundreds of students Wednesday to comply with a federal court order, the mandate is raising questions about possible implications for schools beyond the city.

The mandate is part of a lawsuit — now in federal court in Detroit — filed by the activist group By Any Means Necessary that seeks to halt the Detroit district’s in-person summer school classes. On Tuesday, a federal judge, as part of a temporary restraining order approved by both sides, ordered that the district test about 650 students who are enrolled in the face-to-face classes. The testing, conducted by the city health department using nasal swabs, must be completed this week. The rapid testing will produce results within a half hour, and the district will follow current notification protocols for those students who test positive. Schools can remain open this week while the testing is taking place. 

Because the required testing was part of an order the activist group and the district both approved, “it lives and dies with the parties” and won’t have legal precedence, said Joe Urban, an attorney with the Clark Hill law firm in Detroit, who has been advising districts across the state on many of the issues surrounding dealing with COVID, including reopening.

But it could have precedence in other ways. Urban and others said parents, teachers, and others who are reticent about returning to school, or who want student testing, will use the judge’s order as evidence that schools aren’t ready to reopen.

“As well-meaning as the judge is, I think he went beyond the law,” Urban said of U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow. “Whether it’s precedent or not, there certainly are going to be ramifications across the state that school districts are going to have trouble with.”

But that’s what the plaintiffs want.

“From our standpoint, this [the testing requirement] is something that should be replicated in any district that thinks it’s OK to reopen,” said Ben Royal, a Detroit teacher and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Because the number of positive cases has been on the rise in Michigan, Royal said, “Nobody should be open right now for in person classes.”

The order to test the Detroit students adds to an already intense debate about how schools can safely reopen for the fall. Across the country, people are voicing concerns about whether it’s safe to reopen school buildings that were closed in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Others say students need to learn in person. 

Steve Matthews, the superintendent in Novi Community Schools, a suburban district that is operating a high school summer program in person for about 300 students, is worried about the judge’s ruling.

“Gov. Whitmer’s Return to School Plan does not indicate that we need to engage in testing. There’s no evidence out there that suggests we need to test students every day. Having a federal judge dictate that establishes a concerning precedent about where we might be headed.”

The testing requirement is tricky, Matthews said, because it will provide certainty that students do or don’t have COVID, but only at a particular point in time. 

“You could get tested on Monday and test negative, and get tested again on Wednesday and test positive,” Matthews said. “It just provides a false sense of security to say, ‘Oh yeah, we tested everybody.’”

Royal said he agrees that the one-time testing will only provide a snapshot of positive and negative cases. He said it’s better than no testing. But, he said, “testing has to be a regular thing.”

Matthews said he feels bad for Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and students in Detroit, where there have been protests about in-person summer school. 

“Here you have a group of students who want to go to summer school to get ahead and remediate something and they’re being thwarted from that effort. I feel bad for them,” Matthews said.

On Twitter Wednesday afternoon, Vitti said the Tuesday ruling “put up another education roadblock for Detroit parents.” He shared a note signed “one angry mom” from a parent who said she was having to pull her children out of summer school because she is against the forced testing. “Now I have to explain to my kids why they can’t return to school,” the parent wrote. “This is not fair on us that was letting our kids go to summer school.” 

Some parents dropping their children off at Bates Academy Wednesday morning said they were already comfortable with the safety protocols the Detroit district had in place.

“They wear masks. They have hand sanitizer. They understand what’s going on. The class sizes are very small. If they happen to get any bigger, I would pull them out,” said Brandon Todd, a parent of two students attending summer classes at Bates. “This is a trial to see how everything’s going and overall it’s going very well.”

Still, he supports regular testing for both students and staff.

“You could be negative today and positive a week later,” Todd said.

Shundra Hill, whose second-grade son is attending classes at Bates, said she’s OK with the testing and believes it should also be instituted for the 2020-21 school year.

“That will give everybody an idea if it’s safe or not safe to go back,” she said. “A lot of kids show no signs.” 

Vitti and district attorney Jenice Mitchell Ford argued Tuesday, through statements and in court, that requiring testing for students attending in-person classes in Detroit creates inequity issues. They said it’s not fair to require testing of students in Detroit, but have no such requirement for students attending some of the other in-person classes in the state.

Matthews argued that having a strong set of precautions — such as wearing masks, providing hand sanitizer, enforcing social distancing, screening for symptoms or exposure, and doing temperature checks — is better for addressing safety issues.

In Novi, they’ve had no incidents, aside from a teacher who learned she had contact with someone who had contact with someone who had COVID. The district required that teacher be tested and pulled her out of the classroom for two days, until test results showed she didn’t have the virus.

The district staggers the start times for students so they don’t have large groups of students gathering before and after school, and students are served meals in their classrooms.

The safety precautions are similar in Detroit and in Ecorse Public Schools, which has been operating summer classes for 155 students.

The district detailed its safety precautions to parents in a letter prior to the July 6 start of classes. 

“Our number-one goal was not only to educate the children but to keep the children safe, and to keep the staff safe,” Ecorse Superintendent Josha Talison said.

He opposes requiring students to be tested.

Back in Detroit, Hill stressed that parents chose to send their children to summer school because they wanted that in-person learning.

“No one was forced. It’s almost as if you’re saying I’m a bad parent by choosing to put my kid in summer school. It’s like you’re outparenting me and telling me that my decision was wrong,” Hill said. “This is America. This is where you have a choice. Every kid is not the same. Every child does not learn at the same pace, at the same level, in the same environment.”

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