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Activist group says Detroit district violated federal order to test students for COVID; district officials deny claims

The activist group By Any Means Necessary is attempting to halt in-person summer school classes in the Detroit school district.

The activist group that filed a lawsuit to halt in-person summer school classes in Detroit is at odds with the district over whether the latter fully complied with a court order requiring students to be tested for COVID-19.

In a court filing Sunday night, the group By Any Means Necessary claims the district excluded some students from being tested, and its attorney argues that because only half of the students enrolled in in-person classes were tested, the district violated the order.

The success of this new filing hinges on whether a federal judge agrees that students who aren’t receiving instruction, but are visiting schools for orientation or testing, must also be tested.

“In-person summer school needs to be shut down immediately,” Ben Royal, a district teacher and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement Monday. “The schools never should have opened in the first place.”

The district countered in a court filing Monday morning, denying the charges and saying that any student who was not tested will not be allowed to return to the summer classes.

“This motion is another attempt to undermine the needs of our parents and students and waste taxpayer dollars,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in his statement.

On July 15, the activist group filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the in-person summer school classes that began July 13. Last week, U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow ordered that students attending in-person summer classes be tested for COVID.

The district also filed a motion on July 23 asking the court to find the activist group in violation of the temporary restraining order. The district claimed that BAMN members parked vehicles that blocked the district’s buses. As part of the order’s terms, the group agreed to stop any activities that would prevent the buses from entering and leaving the terminal.

In response, the group said the protesters blocking buses were not affiliated with BAMN. They said they were either unaffiliated with any group or were members of activist groups Detroit Will Breathe or Black Lives Matter, according to the court filing. BAMN did help organize a demonstration with the other groups.

Since Thursday, 359 students have been tested and three students tested positive for the virus. About 650 students were enrolled in in-person classes.

Shanta Driver, in her motion, claims that the district has excluded students attending a special orientation program at Renaissance High School from the testing because they are not part of the summer school program. The motion also claims that the district has excluded students attending special education classes and those who come into the buildings for special education testing.

“The District is behaving like their primary concern is playing some kind of game where the goal is to hide the information rather than protect the well-being of the people who work and go to school in DPSCD,” Driver said in a Monday statement.

“All students attending today’s summer school programs, per the federal judge’s order, have been COVID tested, including ESE (special education) students,” Vitti said in a statement Monday morning.

The district’s motion says all students attending special education classes were “advised of this testing requirement, given consent forms and offered on-site testing.” Those who don’t provide proof of testing, the district said, “will not be allowed to continue summer school.”

The district said the order does not apply to students coming in for special education testing because they are not receiving instruction.

As for the program at Renaissance, the district argued in its court filing that the school runs a summer orientation program that brings in a new group of incoming freshmen each week for several days to help them get accustomed to the high school.

“DPSCD did not exclude the Bridge students from testing in an attempt to obviate the order or willingly violate same,” the district’s response said. “DPSCD excluded the Bridge students because the Bridge Program is not a part of the in-person summer school program. And, DPSCD in good faith believes the Bridge students are not subject to the order.”

Driver also claimed the district “failed to test half the students” enrolled in face-to-face summer classes and said that violates the order. But the district said the order does not call for closing the summer program if all students aren’t tested. Those students who don’t get tested simply would be barred from returning to summer classes, the district argued.

More than 1,000 students are also taking summer classes online. The parents of the students attending face-to-face classes chose that option.

After two students tested positive Thursday, the district said it had begun notifying parents whose children had close contact with them. The district also said it would clean the buildings where those students attended class. It’s unclear which schools the two students attended.

The order also requires that bus drivers be tested. On Sunday, Driver said the group is demanding the district provide the results of those tests as well as identify the schools where the students tested positive and explain how the schools were cleaned.

The lawsuit was originally filed in the Michigan Court of Claims against a number of defendants, including the district, Superintendent Vitti, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, State Superintendent Michael Rice, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. After agreeing to dismiss claims against the state, state officials and Duggan, only the case against the district and Vitti remains. A portion of the case against the district is before a federal judge, while two of the group’s claims have been moved to Wayne County circuit court.

Driver said that after a federal judge ordered the student testing, “there wasn’t anything else we could ask the court to do that went beyond what we had already achieved. It just did not make sense to go forward with it.”

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