Superintendent Vitti expects a ‘vast majority’ of teachers to return to Detroit school buildings this fall

Several high school students work independently at their desks in a classroom.
When the school year begins Sept. 7 in the Detroit school district, there will be an independently operated virtual school for students who choose to learn online. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

The upcoming school year in the Detroit district could see a dramatic shift in the number of teachers working inside school buildings.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a meeting Tuesday that a “vast, vast majority of teachers are ready to come back in the fall.”

Vitti said that so far, just 118 of the district’s 3,000 teachers have said they want to teach virtually, in a new standalone virtual school the district will launch for the 2021-22 school year. School board members approved the virtual school during Tuesday’s meeting.

The expectation of more teachers returning to buildings comes as the Detroit Public Schools Community District looks toward reopening on Sept. 7 with significantly fewer students learning online. Vitti has said that students who were chronically absent, or who failed a course during the 2020-21 school year, would be prohibited from enrolling in the virtual school, unless they have a medical need to learn online. 

How many teachers end up in the virtual school will largely be determined by how many students enroll. Vitti said about 60 students have indicated they want the virtual option, but he said that number will grow as the district promotes the option.

“Once we get closer to mid-August, our numbers will be more refined,” Vitti said. “We’ll know how many teachers we’ll actually need.”

One school board member said Tuesday that getting more teachers to return to in-person learning is crucial to increasing enrollment. The district saw its enrollment decline by nearly 3,000 students during the last school year. The previous year, the district enrolled nearly 50,000 students.

“If teachers are happy and they’re back I believe more students can be recruited,” said Corletta Vaughn.

The last school year began with more than 70% of the district’s students learning online, largely because parents were concerned about the safety of returning to school buildings in the midst of a pandemic that hit the city particularly hard. But with vaccines readily available for adults and children 12 and older, those numbers could shift. Vitti reported Tuesday that more than 70% of the district’s staff, including teachers, is vaccinated. Among teachers, 75% are vaccinated. 

Vitti said the district is currently negotiating with the Detroit Federation of Teachers over a letter of understanding that will guide some reopening decisions. In 2020, the district and union agreed to let teachers choose between teaching in person or online.

The last school year also was marked by a number of academic and mental health challenges. During the Tuesday meeting, Vitti shared test results that showed fewer students made one year’s worth of academic improvement during the pandemic school year. In districts like Detroit, where many of the students struggle academically and perform below grade level, a key measure of success is how many have made a year’s worth of academic progress.

“Before the pandemic, every [academic] data point was moving in the right direction,” said Vitti, who was hired in 2017 to turn around the district. “We know how to do this work, we have the right structures.”

What the district needs, he said, is to get students back in school. Vitti said the district will continue to “expand and scale” what officials say works, including conducting home visits, lowering class sizes, especially at the lower elementary levels, hiring more academic interventionists, and expanding transportation so students can get to school more easily.

“The fall is a renewed focus on outcomes,” he said. “There should be no excuses as to why our students are not showing at least one grade level of improvement … if they’re not chronically absent. When I look at this data, I don’t see the potential of our students. I see the impact of the pandemic.”

But there are still some teachers who are staunchly against in-person teaching until all students and staff can be vaccinated.

“The school district needs to campaign and insist, mandate, that everybody be vaccinated until there can be any hope of safe face-to-face schooling,” said Steve Conn, a math teacher at Western International High School. “Vaccinations are critical to keeping people safe and alive.”

The board unanimously approved creating the virtual school, which would operate independently with its own principal and teaching staff. In addition to the enrollment restrictions, some special programming won’t be available at the school. That includes Montessori, bilingual, and career and technical education programs. 

Students who sign up for the virtual school for the fall must remain there for the first semester. They can switch to in-person learning in January.

Vitti said the virtual school isn’t just a pandemic option for students.

“We believe the virtual school is here to stay. It’s something to build out for the future for students who thrive in the virtual space.”

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