Superintendent Vitti wants some Detroit schools to be COVID-19 vaccination sites, speeding up access for teachers

A close-up photo of a person getting a shot in the arm.
The vaccines given at Detroit schools will not be available to the general public. School nurses will help administer the shots. (Kmatta / Getty Images)

The Detroit school district, in a bid to increase access to the COVID-19 vaccine for its employees, is working with city officials to establish a handful of schools as sites for the shots.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made that announcement during a school board meeting Tuesday night, a day after the state expanded access to the vaccine to include K-12 teachers and child care workers. In Detroit, school employees have been required to sign up for the vaccine through the city, with the vaccinations taking place at the TCF Center.

Noting that employees have reported long delays in getting through to the call line, Vitti said, “I believe we can help with access through our schools.”

Much is riding on educator vaccinations. State officials, in urging schools to provide more in-person learning options for students by March 1, see widespread vaccination of school staff as a clearer path toward that goal. But as quickly as many educators are signing up to get the vaccine, some teachers say they still won’t be comfortable going back to face-to-face classes until all of their colleagues are vaccinated and there is a vaccine for all children.

The vaccines would be available at selected high schools and large K-8 schools beginning late next week or the following week. The district is still working with the city health department  to define the rollout efforts at schools. 

The vaccines given at Detroit schools will not be available to the general public. School nurses will help administer the shots. 

Vitti added he anticipates the district may receive a limited number of vaccines from the city’s health department, and the district may not be able to inoculate every employee. 

Demand for the vaccine this week has been high, with city officials reporting they are adding additional employees to answer phones and schedule appointments. The first vaccines will be administered Wednesday at the TCF Center. While officials did not say how many of the early vaccine seekers are educators, media reports across the state indicate that teachers are interested in getting the shot. Older residents and other essential workers were among those who were able to get the vaccine beginning this week. 

Elsewhere in the nation, state officials have been under scrutiny over the vaccine’s slow rollout for educators. New York state officials announced a new wave of vaccine eligibility for school workers, but cautioned it could take months for them to be inoculated. Chicago Public Schools reopened school campuses for prekindergarten and students with special needs, even though vaccinations aren’t yet officially available for school staff. 

Michael Chrzan, who teaches at the School at Marygrove in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, plans to get the vaccine. But he said on Monday he won’t return to in-person learning until students also can be vaccinated. Currently, there is no vaccine available for children under the age of 16.

“I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of being 100% open and everyone getting back in the building,” he said. Although he would be protected from the virus,  “I would hate to see ... these kids are getting sick.” 

Another teacher wants to see the number of COVID-19 cases drop before returning to the classroom, even after getting inoculated. “I’m definitely taking the vaccine as soon as I can,” said Madeleine Battey on Monday, a teacher at Mumford High School.

“My hope is that we can get back to face-to-face before the end of the year, but with even offering the vaccination to teachers, the only way we can expect people to get back in the classroom is the case count,” she said.

If Detroit’s COVID-19 infection rate falls below 5% and stays constant, the district plans to offer in-person learning starting in February. The city’s current infection rate is about 7%. For the current 2020-21 academic year, district teachers had the option to work remotely and will continue to have that option. About 75% of Detroit district students were learning online before school buildings closed in November because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the city.

Districts can’t mandate the vaccine, but some may require teachers to report to classrooms anyway, Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, said in an interview this week. Reckhow has worked on policy reform in Detroit and other cities nationwide.

Vitti said during the meeting that the district’s role isn’t to require the vaccine but instead to help create awareness. 

If large numbers of teachers don’t take the vaccine in areas where cases surge, students may face more learning disruptions, such as staff quarantines and school closures, which would “keep those elements of instability alive,” Reckhow added. 

The district wants to avoid such instability as the school year progresses. 

“I don’t want to open again and close again this school year,” Vitti said. 

In Detroit, some lingering distrust of the vaccine remains among Black people because of past bias and racism in healthcare. Results of a recent University of Michigan survey of Detroit residents found more than 60% of those who participated said they were unlikely to get the vaccine. About 1,641 residents were surveyed, and about 62% responded. 

The district also plans to survey teachers and families beginning Wednesday, asking whether they prefer in-person, hybrid, or virtual learning, if teachers are willing to take the vaccine, and how vaccinations of staff will affect attitudes toward in-person learning. 

New board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo said the district will play a key role in “removing the hysteria” over vaccine fears. She also suggested the district should allow teachers who’ve already taken the vaccine to share their experiences with other staff.

Member Misha Stallworth West said the district should play a role in educating staff and families about vaccine safety, but cautioned against becoming advocates for getting the vaccine. 

“We know much of the skepticism in our community is well-earned,” she said. 

District parent Jessica Ouinissi and other parents also question the safety of in-person classrooms, even if school staff take the vaccine. 

“I still don’t know what the perfect scenario would look like for me to send her back,” she said in an interview last week. 

When Carrie Russell’s students returned to Cody High school from winter break on Jan. 4, she asked them if they wanted to return to school campuses. She said Monday that most didn’t feel comfortable, while others said their parents would think it’s still too unsafe. 

“If we come back, it doesn’t mean the kids will follow us,” she said.

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