Detroit district moves to virtual learning three Fridays in December

A classroom with blue chairs sits empty.
Classes in the Detroit Public Schools Community District will move online for three Fridays in December as the district tries to address COVID spread, cleaning, and mental health. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

The Detroit school district is moving to remote instruction for three Fridays in December, a decision district officials attributed to concerns about mental health, COVID cases, and school cleanliness.

The move was announced Wednesday on the district’s website. It comes as the state is leading the nation in new COVID cases. Students and teachers are expected to show up online for remote learning on those days.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in that statement that he and the school board made the decision “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.”

Learning will move online on Dec. 3, Dec. 10, and Dec. 17. The district’s holiday break begins Dec. 20.

Attendance on those days is vital, Vitti said. The district enrolls about 49,000 students.

“We must all work hard to ensure that we meet or exceed 75% district wide student attendance on these three days or districtwide online learning days will not be a viable option for us the rest of the school year.”

Districts lose a portion of their state aid if they don’t hit the 75% attendance target.

Meanwhile, classes are already moving online for students and staff at Renaissance High School. They’ll be remote until Nov. 29.

“In partnership with the Detroit Health Department we suspended in person learning because we had multiple outbreaks identified in multiple grade levels,” Vitti said in a statement Wednesday evening.

It’s the latest school to be affected. Multiple schools have had to close this school year because of COVID outbreaks. During the week of Nov. 5, the district reported 367 student and staff cases, with 857 students in quarantine.

The Detroit decision is similar to an earlier decision by Southfield Public Schools, which announced last month that it would go to remote learning on Fridays partially in response to staffing shortages.

The federal Centers for Disease Control has guidelines for when cleaning is necessary in facilities, for instance, recommending that “if a sick person or someone who tested positive for COVID-19 has been in your facility within the last 24 hours, you should clean and disinfect the spaces they occupied.” However, the federal agency makes it clear that the risk of infection from touching surfaces is low.

Machion Jackson, assistant superintendent of operations, told board members during a committee meeting  Monday that the district is continuing to adhere to “regular” and “deep” cleaning practices that use federally recognized disinfectants instead of household products as well as using federal COVID money to provide overtime pay for custodial staff.

“Our custodians go through all the occupied classrooms, as well as offices, common areas throughout the day,” Jackson said.

“Deep cleaning is akin to your spring cleaning: when you open the windows of your home, when you dust those high and low surfaces, when you wash your curtains or dry-clean them.”

“Deep cleaning is traditionally completed during our summer months. We take more time to do that however because of the onset of COVID we have changed the practices and there are  very highly concentrated areas we focus on in the event that there is a COVID case in the building.”

The district has no plans to shift to a hybrid schedule in which some learning takes place in person and some online. 

“Long-term we will accelerate the conversation about a vaccine mandate for employees and students knowing that this is the best strategy to keep students safe and in schools,” Vitti said.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the union negotiated with the district to provide virtual days once a week in December.

“With the increase in cases around the state, we have to start somewhere,” Martin said.

“We’ll try this for the month of December to see if it makes a difference and if not we’ll have to try something else.”

Across the district, he added, numerous schools have had issues with following COVID protocols that prompted teacher concerns. The goal, Martin says, is not to continue “opening and closing schools” every month. 

During a school board meeting last week, members asked Vitti a number of questions about the district’s cleaning protocols, including how often schools are cleaned and whether there are enough disinfectant products available to individual teachers. Vitti responded that the school district is fully stocked with supplies and has increased its allotment of teacher stipend through federal COVID relief money. 

During the public comment period of the meeting, the board heard concerns from teachers and parents about whether the district was adequately following COVID protocols.

Marnina Falk, a teacher in the district who addressed the board during the meeting, said she was doubly concerned about the district’s reporting of COVID cases. 

“I think that the way we are informed about cases, and track quarantined students, needs to be improved,” Falk said. “It’s simply not sustainable. Right now it’s too much to keep up with and I’m becoming drained and it’s becoming dangerous.”

Martin said the teachers union is additionally investigating concerns of underreported COVID cases across district schools. 

The announcement followed a mass walkout at Martin Luther King High School, in which students and staff stood outside the school building Wednesday to critique the school’s COVID protocols. The school had reported six new cases as of Wednesday.

King Principal Damian Perry, in a statement provided to Chalkbeat, said school leaders share the concerns of staff members and believes the December remote instruction is a step in the right direction. 

“We will continue to follow the safety guidance of the district, participate in weekly testing, and report positive cases as required,” said Perry in the statement. 

The district has an email address that parents, students and staff members can use to anonymously report any violation of COVID safety protocols inside their school building. 

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