Detroit’s religious, school, and union leaders say it’s time to get back to in-person learning

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is flanked by religious, school, and union leaders during an event in which they urged Detroiters to get vaccinated to ensure a safe return to in-person learning (Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat)

Detroit religious leaders came together with school and union leaders Thursday to call for a safe return to in-person learning and to encourage residents — especially students and staff — to get vaccinated.

“Take the shot,” said Rev. Steve Bland, president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit & Vicinity, as he led a group on a stage at Liberty Temple Baptist Church in a chant.

The leaders said they were coming together because they can see how crucial it is for students to be in school, echoing concerns officials from the Detroit Public Schools Community District have shared all school year about increasing failure rates, higher chronic absenteeism, and low engagement. 

“It’s time to get back into the classroom,” said Bishop Charles Ellis of Greater Grace Temple, who said education is a ticket to success for students who are raised in high-poverty communities like Detroit.

“We can’t just have clean buildings. We need the workforce,” Ellis said.

The calls for in-person learning and vaccination comes weeks after COVID vaccine eligibility expanded to include anyone 12 and older, and as schools across the U.S. step up efforts to encourage young people to get vaccinated. In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, a group of students sponsored sessions to educate their peers about the vaccine, and the city is holding clinics for parents to bring their children to get the shots.

The success of these efforts will influence how widely schools will reopen for the 2021-22 school year, which begins Sept. 7 in the Detroit district. Earlier this week, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti shared his thoughts on how schools can reopen for the fall. 

Those tentative plans, details of which need union buy-in, include opening a separate online school that would be limited largely to students who did not experience chronic absenteeism or academic failure during the current school year. There would be some flexibility for others, though, to learn online. 

But the goal is for the district to get more students learning in-person, and Vitti said it would be mandatory for certain groups. Those groups include students who receive special education services, students who are learning English, students in bilingual programs, and students who are in Montessori programs. Staff in those programs would also be required to work in person.

Students and staff can get exemptions for medical reasons that would allow them to learn online with a virtual teacher. In addition, Vitti said there is a separate option for Montessori and bilingual students that would allow them to learn online, following along with an in-person Montessori teacher. But he said those teachers would be focused on the students learning face-to-face, and not the online students.

At Thursday’s event, Vitti said about 7,000 of the district’s 48,000 students have been attending the district’s learning centers, where they can go to complete their online learning under staff supervision. About 1,000 of those students are receiving face-to-face instruction, Vitti said. About 19,000 families have indicated that they want in-person learning, but the district currently can’t provide it because there aren’t enough teachers willing to teach.

The number of teachers willing to teach is growing, though. It was about 500 earlier this year but is up to 600. 

Terrence Martin, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said Thursday that the union wants educators and the school community to be safe and protected against COVID-19, and that means getting vaccinated.

“It’s extremely important for us to get vaccinated,” Martin said. “It is time to get back to in person learning. Our students need it. Our community needs it. And our teachers are ready.”

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