Detroit school district ready to ramp up online learning during shutdown

As the state extends the shutdown of Michigan schools through the end of the current school year, the Detroit school district is moving ahead with plans to ramp up its online learning effort, and working to get more tablets in the hands of students.

Whitmer announced Thursday she is ordering schools closed through the end of the school year amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, something Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been urging for more than a week.

Making that decision now, he said during a school board committee meeting Friday, “would give us a chance to shift to a more online learning instructional delivery model.”

Across Michigan, there is a wide variance in how school districts are handling learning during the shutdown, with some wealthier communities having the resources to provide online instruction that replaces face-to-face learning.

In most other communities, schools are providing academic resources and lessons online and there are many examples of teachers who are engaging with students daily.

A U.S. Census report from 2017 found that just 67.5% of Detroit households had broadband internet, the lowest rate among 25 large U.S. cities. Some rural areas of the state are in much worse shape when it comes to online access.

The Detroit school district has handed out academic packets and provided online resources since the shutdown began last month.

That will be ramped up soon, Vitti told board members last week, with more materials being provided beginning April 14.

There are also plans to provide assignments to students daily, as well as videotaped lessons that parents could access online. 

“All of our school level staff will have specific roles and responsibilities to engage students and families during the closure,” Vitti said.

That will happen through phone calls and a new “virtual platform,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Vitti said the district will need to work with the Detroit Federation of Teachers union “to create a memo of understanding to change the way in which we’re engaging students.”

The lessons that would be posted daily could be turned in by students, but not for a grade. Vitti said the lessons would be for enrichment, not credit. The lessons would also be printed.

“Our children are in different home environments regarding access to a device or laptop or internet,” he said. “We would be disenfranchising many students if we required it and we would only exacerbate the divide we see throughout the city.”

A U.S. Census report from 2017 found that just 67.5% of Detroit households had broadband internet, the lowest rate among 25 large U.S. cities. 

On social media Wednesday, Vitti said the district is working to close the technology gap.

“We are actively working with the business community to provide DPSCD families with a tablet and internet access to fight through the digital divide,” Vitti said on Twitter

He said the goal is to have tablets and internet access in place by the end of May.