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As Detroit teachers weigh a strike, district could ask families to go virtual if enough educators won’t work in schools

The district joins several other school districts in Michigan shifting to all remote learning due to increases in positive coronavirus cases.
The district is in the midst of surveying parents to find out whether they want their children to attend school in person or online. So far, 80% have chosen the online option.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district will ask some parents to switch their children from in-person learning to the remote-only option, or to consider transferring to a nearby school, if there aren’t enough teachers who are willing to teach face to face.

Vitti’s announcement, during a school board meeting Tuesday night, came just a day before members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers or DFT, are set to vote on whether to strike over COVID-19 safety concerns. That vote, first announced last week, is scheduled during a meeting Wednesday afternoon.

District officials have previously said they couldn’t guarantee that teachers would get the work assignment of their choice, whether it be in person or online.

It’s unclear why Vitti shifted the policy, how the district will determine which parents to ask to make the switch, or what happens if families opt not to change their preference.

“These questions will be best answered after our negotiations with DFT are completed,” Vitti said in an email after the Tuesday meeting.

He did say during the meeting that he expected the district will “have enough teachers willing to teach face-to-face, based on our needs.”

DFT President Terrence Martin said last week that the district was ignoring union demands, such as an all-virtual start to the school year and assuring hazard pay for teachers who are working in school buildings.

In Michigan, strikes by public employees are considered illegal. State law was updated in 2016 to penalize teachers who strike. But Martin said last week he believes the union has a solid legal argument to launch a strike.

“Health and safety changes things. This is not a traditional strike in the sense of what we’re accustomed to. This is not a work stoppage,” he said. The distinction, Martin noted, is that union members are willing to educate children this fall, but remotely.

Vitti said on Twitter Wednesday afternoon that “conversations with the DFT have increased over the past week and we are both bargaining in good faith. The reopening process is very hard, on multiple levels, but we will get this right for our students, families and employees.”

The district is in the midst of surveying parents to find out whether they want their children to attend school in person or online. So far, 80% have chosen the online option, Vitti said during the meeting. The district has yet to hear from a fifth of its parents.

Many school districts across Michigan are beginning the school year with students learning online-only because of concerns about COVID-19. But dozens are starting the year in person or giving parents an option between in-person and online. Face-to-face learning has sparked debate across the state, but particularly in Michigan’s largest district, where Wednesday’s vote could intensify that debate. Vitti has argued for months that the district must accommodate parents who want an in-person option for their children, and he’s said online learning doesn’t work for all.

Tuesday night, Vitti failed to sway those who believe the district shouldn’t offer in-person learning as the school year gets underway .

“I am concerned for my colleagues,” said Marnina Falk, an elementary school teacher during the public comment period, noting the risk of a virus outbreak, even if schools follow federal safety guidelines.

For some Detroit district teachers, the public health risks of COVID-19 are too severe.

High school math teacher ShaRon Dennis went to pick up her fridge and microwave from her classroom last Thursday. She knew it might be the last time she’d step inside the school.

Dennis, 64, is a retiree who returned to teach in the Detroit district in 2017. She falls in the high-risk category for COVID-19 complications should she contract the virus.

“I’m a senior citizen. I have asthma. I’m overweight. I have high blood pressure. I have a lot of risks,” Dennis said, noting she supports the union’s push to strike.

District middle school teacher Erica Webb, in an interview earlier this week, said she, too, would support a strike. She wants to teach online because her son is still recovering from an illness, and she fears bringing home the virus.

“Any pathogens could possibly be a potential setback, and I’m not willing to take that risk,” she said. “I could be a potential carrier to him, my parents.”

Many educators have pointed out that some schools that have already opened have seen positive COVID tests, highlighting the risks.

Martin said during the school board meeting that while he appreciates conversations he’s had with district officials, he’s still troubled that some school staff, such as social workers, physical therapists, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors and others, are still being asked to return to school buildings.

“The fear of this virus and what it has done to families is real and cannot be ignored,” he said. “I truly urge this board to take heed of what was said today. It is vitally important that we protect the health and safety of our students and the health and safety of our staff.”

DFT along with other district unions sent a list of demands to school officials last month, including urging the school district to start the school year virtually and giving hazard pay to teachers working in school buildings during the pandemic.

Vitti said the district is currently negotiating with DFT regarding bonuses for those teaching face-to-face. State hazard pay legislation now before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could help the district cover any agreed-upon bonuses.

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