As COVID rates drop, Superintendent Vitti shares plan for returning more Detroit students to in-person learning

Several high school students use pencils and calculators to complete assignments in a classroom. Light streams in from windows on the right of the photo.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District is considering a reopening plan that includes a separate virtual school for some students, and a requirement that students receiving special education services, as well as others, learn in person. File photo from 2019 at Southeastern High School in Detroit. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

The Detroit school district would open a separate online school next year for some students who want to continue learning remotely, and it would require its most vulnerable students, as well as students in Montessori programs, to learn in person. 

Among those who would be required to learn in person — unless they receive a medical exemption — would be students who receive special education services, chronically absent students, and those still learning English.

Those were some of the ideas for reopening for the fall that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti shared with parents during a virtual engagement session Tuesday. Vitti said nothing is definite for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, but that the ideas represent the current thinking of district leaders. 

Two things could get in the way, though. Some of the details would require buy-in from district unions. And the Michigan legislature must act to ensure that students will be able to continue learning online. Vitti is sharing the ideas with parents, staff, and others in the community to get input. A district survey will go out in June, asking parents what mode of instruction they prefer. 

The discussions come as COVID-19 cases continue to decline across Michigan after surges earlier this year forced the Detroit district to suspend in-person learning for the second time this school year. 

Like school district leaders across the U.S., Detroit’s top education officials are in the midst of conversations about returning to buildings after a school year marked by COVID-19 anxiety, higher failure rates, more chronic absenteeism, and a reluctance among many school staff and parents to return to  buildings. New York school officials left parents with mixed emotions Monday when they announced the district would not offer any remote learning for students in the fall. In Tennessee, schools have been barred from offering hybrid learning, in which students learn both online and in person, next school year. 

One person who attended Tuesday’s meeting in the Detroit district asked whether the district should wait until a vaccine is available for all students before trying to get more students learning face to face.

“We all know that our students need in-person learning and we have to function with a sense of urgency about that need,” Vitti said in response. “That doesn’t mean that’s the right approach for every single child but I can say with a degree of confidence that the majority of our DPSCD students need in-person learning yesterday.”

Here are some of the details of the district’s current thinking on who would be required to learn in person:

  • Students who receive special education services. So would their teachers. 
  • Students who are English language learners, as well as their teachers.
  • Students who were chronically absent this school year — meaning they have missed 18 or more days.
  • Athletes who failed at least one course.
  • Students enrolled in Montessori programs, and their teachers.
  • In all cases where the district would require students or staff to be in person, exemptions would be granted for medical reasons.

In addition, students and staff inside school buildings would be required to continue wearing masks indoors. In situations where everyone in a room is fully vaccinated, a mask would not be required. The district would maintain current safety protocols such as social distancing, symptom checks, and the use of hand sanitizer. But fully vaccinated students wouldn’t have to follow some of those rules, such as the symptom checks.

Those attending Tuesday’s meeting were able to submit questions that were read to Vitti by Sharlonda Buckman, the district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement. While Vitti’s presentation covered a wide range of topics, most of the questions were about his reopening plans.

Vitti, addressing a question about whether the district could also allow Montessori students to learn online, said it’s impossible “to staff full-time Montessori and full-time virtual Montessori.” Montessori programs are distinct in the way they focus on giving children the space to learn and explore at their own pace.

“It’s not a funding issue. We have COVID money. We can’t recruit teachers in enough time to train them and orient them to run two schools.”

He suggested that some Montessori students could learn online, following along with lessons taking place in a school building. It’s a flexibility he said could be available to other students. But he stressed that the teacher in the classroom would be focused on the students in the class, and not the online learners.

Vitti, in making an argument for why more students need in-person learning, cited data he has shared with school board members monthly. The data show the overall percentage of students who failed at least one course was 56%, up from 36% during the 2019-20 school year. That’s despite flexibility in grading Vitti announced earlier this year.

Broken down by quarter, and by mode of learning, the differences are stark. In the first quarter of this school year, 32% of face-to-face students failed at least one course, compared with 60% of virtual students. What’s even more interesting is what happened during the second quarter, when in-person learning was shut down in November because of increasing COVID-19 case rates. The failure rate for the second quarter rose to 46% for in-person students, and 57% for virtual students.

Last summer, the district negotiated a letter of agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers that gave teachers the option of teaching in person or online. Most chose online. But with a vaccine now readily available, more teachers are likely to consider returning to school buildings. Vitti said last week that about 56% of the teachers have told the district they are fully vaccinated.

Terrence Martin, president of the union, said some of the details Vitti has shared will need to be discussed at the bargaining table. The district and the union are in the middle of bargaining and Martin said he hopes to wrap it up before the end of the school year.

“We all want students to return in the fall, and we want schools to have more of a consistent face-to-face structure,” he said.

The union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, whose president recently called on schools to reopen in the fall with five days of in-person instruction for all students.

Martin said it makes sense that district officials are looking to offer a virtual school and a face-to-face option.

“We have a lot of members who have medical conditions and are fragile. And we have members who are still fearful of what this virus is and what it can do. There’s some legitimate fears there,” Martin said.

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