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‘My daughter’s learning is the most important to me’: How Detroit parents are navigating choice of online vs. in school

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The Detroit school district called the press conference to highlight the two learning options available to parents and draw attention to an important survey parents must fill out to indicate which option they want for their children.

Eleanore Catolico

Jessica Ounissi’s daughter will be starting the school year online in September. The Detroit mom said she’s not comfortable with face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You cannot fully control children at all times,” said Ounissi, whose daughter will be a fourth-grader at Coleman A. Young Elementary School. 

By contrast, Kenya Gough, whose son attends Osborn High School, plans to enroll him for in-person classes, saying he needs the structure.

“My son is not mature enough to be accountable for his learning experience,” said Gough, who said she is confident in the district’s efforts to ensure student safety.

The parents, who both spoke at a press conference Friday outside the Golightly Education Center in Detroit, illustrate some of the factors families across Michigan are weighing as they try to decide how their children will be educated during the 2020-21 school year. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to School advisory council created health and safety guidelines for schools to safely reopen, along with some mandates. It’s up to local school districts to decide the type of instruction to offer. 

Similar deliberations are playing out nationwide: Some advocacy groups wary of new outbreaks are calling for requiring stricter safety protocols, including regular student and teacher COVID-19 testing, before school can resume, while some parents of students with special needs are demanding a return to in-person instruction so their children can receive supplementary services, as required by federal law.

‘Parents are the best experts’

The Detroit school district called the press conference to highlight the two learning options available to parents and draw attention to an important survey parents must fill out to indicate which option they want for their children.

District officials want parents to submit their responses promptly, so they will be able to properly allocate resources across the system’s roughly 100 schools in time for the start of the school year.

“Parents are the best experts,” said Sharlonda Buckman, the district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement during the press conference. 

Among the parents who took the podium during the press conference was Janet Martinez, whose daughter is currently attending in-person summer school classes at Munger Elementary. Martinez said she had her reservations about sending her back to a classroom.

“At first, I was afraid,” she said. But after seeing the safety procedures at the school, she changed her mind.

“When I decided to go in person and saw everything, my daughter got so happy and excited. Because over the shutdown my daughter was crying. She doesn’t know how to read. Face-to-face is where she learns more,” she said. 

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, during a virtual town hall meeting Friday, said he expects roughly two-thirds of district families will select the online option. The rest will choose face-to-face instruction.

“We’re not promoting one over the other,” he said. “We want parents to feel comfortable with their decision, based on the individual needs of students.” 

In addition to the investments in health and safety, such as purchasing masks and other personal protection equipment and improving sanitation, Vitti said the district will have staff visit schools to monitor compliance with safety measures. Parents will also be able to report issues directly to the district. 

A complex decision

Detroit and other school districts have developed reopening plans to address the learning needs and safety concerns of students and families, with either face-to-face or online learning. Some districts are also offering hybrid learning, where students would split time between going to school and learning from home during a given school week. 

Preparations for the fall are underway despite uncertainties regarding funding and whether school buildings will be allowed to open at all if coronavirus cases continue to rise. 

For many parents, a lack of child care or the need to return to work complicates their decision. Ounissi, who is a working parent, says she’s fortunate to have the family support to let her keep her child learning at home.

“If I didn’t have family or someone to help me, I definitely would have had to send them back,” she said. “For some people, they just don’t have options.” 

And there are parents who must factor in different needs for multiple children. Ta’Mara Williams  has two children attending Noble Elementary and a third who will be at the School at Margrove in the fall. 

Williams said she probably won’t send her younger children back to school because she’s worried they won’t follow social distancing rules. But her oldest will return to the classroom.

“I want to send her back to school because she’s more [informed] to understand the pros and cons of not touching, wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer,” she said. 

Crystal McKinley, a parent of a student at Edmonson Elementary, a district Montessori school, said she will not be sending her child back to the classroom because much of the Montessori method involves students working closely in groups. 

Martinez, the Munger parent, said she doesn’t want her daughter’s education to suffer, something she feels would happen if the 7-year-old was enrolled in online classes.

“My daughter‘s learning is the most important to me,” she said.

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