Deal to avoid Detroit teachers ‘safety’ strike would offer COVID-19 testing, hazard pay

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, speaks during a demonstration outside Renaissance High School
The Detroit district and the union had been at odds over safe working conditions for teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo taken in 2019. (Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat)

A deal to avoid a Detroit teachers safety strike would offer COVID-19 testing for students and staff, and provide teachers working in school buildings with up to $3,000 in hazard pay.

Those details are outlined in an email that the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which represents some 4,000 district employees, sent at about 8 p.m. to its members. Chalkbeat Detroit obtained the email later in the evening, but could not immediately reach union officials for comment.

“Our stance in talks with the Detroit Public Schools Community District has been: If there is choice for one, there must be choice for all — and that is what we have secured with this agreement,” Terrence Martin, the union’s president, wrote in the email, referring to members’ ability to choose whether to work in-person or remotely. 

The Detroit district and the union had been at odds over safe working conditions for teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deal comes about a week after union members voted to allow leadership to launch a safety strike if certain demands weren’t met. Such a strike would have teachers working remotely, but not in school buildings. Union officials have stressed that it would not amount to a work stoppage.

About three dozen school districts in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties are beginning the school year with both in-person and virtual instruction, but the debate over such a plan has been particularly intense in the Detroit district.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, in a statement from the district, said he hopes the district and union can work together to serve students and families.

“The need to serve our children never stops,” Vitti said. “Even in a pandemic, we need to find ways to best serve and support our children. For some of our families and students, this means face to face instruction and for others it is online learning. This agreement signals we will work together to provide equitable education opportunities for our children and families.”

Added Iris Taylor, president of the Detroit school board: “We believe our protocols and reopening plan will create a safe environment for learning during this unprecedented time in public education and we have committed to frequent reviews of the reopening plan as COVID-19 has proven to be unpredictable.” 

Vitti has been clear for months that he believes parents should have the option to choose between in-person and online instruction. In recent weeks, the district has said that teachers also would be able to choose between the two, and that some buildings have the option of going online only if there aren’t enough teachers who want in person instruction.

“Nearly all schools will offer some level of face to face instruction even if most teachers and students will function online at particular schools,” a press release from the district said.

Martin wrote in his email to members that the union hopes to have a new general contract negotiated with the district by Monday, August 31. 

Still, the authorization to strike remains in place, Martin said. He said union members will need to ensure the district follows the guidelines of the letter.

“If needed, we can invoke our rights under the strike authorization vote, as well as remedies contemplated by the new agreement,” Martin wrote.

As part of the agreement, DFT will be conducting walkthroughs of buildings to ensure the district is complying with its COVID-19 safety protocols. 

The agreement includes the following provisions:

  • Ongoing COVID-19 testing for students and district employees working inside school buildings on a voluntary basis. Students and staff would have to consent to the testing.
  • All union members will be allowed to choose between face-to-face or remote work.
  • Desks that are placed six feet apart to encourage social distancing in classroom with the maximum of 20 students in a class.
  • Hazard pay for employees who choose to work in-person in the amount of a $750 bonus for each marking period through June 30, 2021.
  • The creation of a joint labor-management committee that will evaluate public health data from the Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties and make new safety recommendations when necessary.

The committee would meet weekly to review reopening issues and review pandemic related data, according to the district’s press release.

“This is another layer of monitoring, accountability, and collaboration to ensure commitments of safety are implemented with fidelity,” the release said. 

The agreement is opposed by a vocal caucus of the union that has led regular protests against the reopening of school buildings.

“This deal does not change the fact that COVID-19 maims and kills people,” Benjamin Royal, a member of the caucus, said in a Friday morning statement. “It does not change the facts that Detroit is the largest majority black city in the country and we are facing a pandemic that disproportionately kills black people.”

You can read the agreement here and the district’s statement here.

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