The Detroit school district, one of the few remaining in Michigan that hadn’t set plans to return to in-person instruction this school year, will reopen its doors to students on March 8.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made the announcement Wednesday night during a virtual school board community meeting. The district will continue to offer virtual instruction, but Vitti warned that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and lawmakers will need to act soon to ensure a virtual option will continue to be allowed next school year.
“Our belief in DPSCD is that parents should continue to have an option of online or face-to-face,” Vitti said. He said it’s hard to argue that in-person instruction isn’t superior. But he said “we do know that the COVID fear is very real and the threat of COVID is still in existence despite a vaccine.”
He spoke during the first community meeting the district and school board have held since the pandemic caused a shutdown of school buildings in the state nearly a year ago. The meetings give the public an opportunity to ask questions and have a conversation with school board members outside of the more structured monthly meetings.
Vitti’s announcement came on the same day Whitmer again urged districts that have not yet returned to in-person instruction to offer an option by next week.
“In addition to academic achievement, a school environment provides social and emotional skills that are foundational to our kids’ development,” Whitmer said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“For young children especially, face-to-face learning is critical,” she said. “While some students and families have been successful with distance learning, far too many have struggled. A significant loss of in-person instruction time has long-term consequences on a child’s long-term development. Right now, tens of thousands of vulnerable children in Michigan risk falling through the cracks and staying stuck behind unless we make clear efforts to catch them up.”
On Wednesday morning, the district reopened learning centers in each school. The learning centers provide students with an opportunity to learn online within school buildings with staff overseeing them. Some working parents have opted for the learning centers because they provide a safe place for their children to do online learning.
Vitti said Wednesday that the learning centers are an opportunity to “reduce the burden on families right now, and try to help students learn online.”
The district began the school year with about 25% of the students learning in person and the rest learning online. Thousands more were in the learning centers. But as COVID-19 cases began to rise in November, the district shut down classes and transitioned to online learning for all students.
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There likely will be more students learning online when face-to-face instruction resumes March 8. Recent survey results show 40% to 50% of families are interested.
Vitti said earlier this year that the district would reopen buildings if the percentage of positive cases was substantially below 5%. He said Wednesday that the rate is now around 3%.
Being substantially below 5% leaves less of a chance the district will have to halt in-person instruction.
“When we open, our plan is to stay open,” Vitti said.
He said the district is making the decision to return to schools in compliance with an agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers that says staff are allowed to decide whether they want to teach in person. In the fall, just 20% of the teachers opted for that mode of instruction. Recent survey data show the interest has grown to around 40%.
Terrence Martin, president of the teachers union, told Chalkbeat earlier Wednesday that the comfort level of teachers willing to be in person “is going to hinge on how transparent the district is going to be, how well the mitigation strategies are implemented. Making sure there’s proper ventilation, keeping the number of students in the classroom down.”
As for the 2021-22 school year, Vitti called on Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature to change laws to ensure districts that have a substantial number of students learning online are able to do so without losing any funding.
“Our fear … is that with 97% of the districts now going back in person, some with 100% of their students, is the Legislature might feel that there’s no reason to allow for online learning or to fund online learning,” Vitti said. “We’re always going to have more parents that are reluctant to send their children to school. Therefore … we want options.”
Chalkbeat reporter Koby Levin contributed to this report.