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‘COVID-19 is still a public health threat’: Detroit district addresses community feedback on fall reopening plan

A classroom with green walls and empty desks.
Teachers and parents are worried about enforcing social distancing for prekindergarten to second grade students.

The availability of masks for students and staff. Older employees worried about COVID-19. Getting kindergartners to socially distance.

These are among the top student, parent, and teacher concerns regarding the Detroit school district’s proposed fall reopening plan discussed during Tuesday’s virtual school board meeting. The responses came after the district released a preliminary plan and asked for community input.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shuttered Michigan K-12 school buildings in March to curb the spread of coronavirus. Since then, the Detroit district has used a combination of homework packets and virtual learning to teach students. Several months without in-person instruction have educators worried about learning loss, but Whitmer said she’s optimistic schools will reopen if they follow state guidelines that are expected to be released by the end of the month. Whitmer’s Return to School advisory panel will recommend ways schools can reopen safely.

Districts across the country are grappling with the best way to keep students and staff safe in the fall. A New York charter school enlisted private design firms to help shape their reopening guidance. Illinois school superintendents are hashing out their reopening plans as they await state safety recommendations. Indiana’s education department said schools can reopen if school districts create community individual plans, amongst other considerations.

Detroit district superintendent Nikolai Vitti acknowledged the plan is a work in progress.

“This plan is by far not perfect. No plan is. There will be challenges and gaps and when they occur, we will be transparent and adjusting where appropriate,” Vitti said during his report to school board members Tuesday night. A revised plan will be released in the coming weeks.

Vitti said there was general appreciation in the feedback for the draft plan’s focus on health and safety, but it’s clear there are still widespread anxieties over a return to in-person learning, especially since Detroit was hit hardest in Michigan by the virus. In a survey of nearly 4,000 parents, 61% said they are prepared to send students back to classrooms if safety precautions are implemented, while 75% of parents wanted a mix of in-person and online instruction in the fall.

Vitti reported many concerns raised over the availability of personal protection equipment for students and staff. In the proposal, all students and staff will be required to wear face masks. Instructional staff will receive face shields, and nurses and first responders will receive KN95 face masks, which can prevent the wearer from inhaling some smaller particles. Soap and hand sanitizer will be regularly restocked in school bathrooms. All students and staff also will be required to undergo training on healthy hygiene practices and social distancing.

Teachers and parents are worried about enforcing social distancing for prekindergarten to second grade students and making sure they keep their face masks on. Vitti said there is “no direct solution” to these worries, but said reducing class sizes in lower grade classrooms and using larger school spaces, like cafeterias, would help students physically separate. In the plan, no more than 20 students will be allowed in each classroom. Vitti said the number of students in each class may also depend on the size of the schools and the classrooms themselves.

Many parents wanted expanded virtual learning in the fall. Vitti said that is the plan because the district is distributing tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots to all students. But increasing online learning would require flexibility from Michigan’s education department regarding existing scheduling options, the school calendar, and attendance.

Older school employees with preexisting health conditions are worried about returning to school buildings because they are at a higher risk of contracting the virus. Vitti said many of these employees requested to be prioritized for virtual instruction. Those concerns will be considered, Vitti said, but employees will be selected to teach virtually based on technological proficiency and their experiences during the school closure.

“We want the best teachers engaging our students online,” he said. These employees may use personal or sick days or take temporary medical leave.

The district will also require students, teachers, and staff to self-check for symptoms and undergo daily temperature checks. In addition, employees must have a negative COVID-19 test before returning to in-person work. Students will not be required to test for the virus, although this requirement may change if there is a second wave. Vitti said the district is worried about creating an additional burden on families and that student testing could reduce enrollment.

If there are confirmed cases reported at any school, those buildings will be immediately closed for at least 24 hours of deep cleaning. If widespread school closures are required, the district will transition to full virtual instruction.

There has been a lot of talk about a second wave possibly. Obviously, we’re better situated as a district to address this issue,” Vitti said.

Tamara Ruth, a parent of a district elementary student, is still deeply concerned about classes returning in the fall.

“Nothing has changed since March. There is no vaccine. There is no cure. COVID-19 is still a public health threat endangering our students, families, staff, the school community,” she said during Tuesday’s public comment period. “I appreciate the superintendent recognizes the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on Detroit. The district is going to have to be more stringent about reopening than other places.”

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