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Detroit district delays return, will require COVID testing for in-person learning

A girl holds her mom’s hand as she gets ready to receive her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during a pediatric vaccine clinic at Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School in Detroit, Michigan,
The Detroit school district is delaying the return to classes after the break and will require students to have a consent form on file to be tested for COVID. File photo taken during a district vaccination event this fall.
Emily Elconin / Chalkbeat

The Detroit school district announced Friday that it would delay a return to school as COVID cases in the city and state continue to surge, and that it would begin requiring students receiving in-person learning to get tested for COVID.

Under the new testing policy, students who do not submit to testing by Jan. 31 will be enrolled in the district’s virtual school.

There will be no in-person or virtual learning Monday through Wednesday, and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he will be providing more direction next week on the remaining days of the week.

The new policy on student testing comes after months of discussion at the district level and research on whether it would be legal to require students to be tested. The district now says that by Jan. 31, students must have a consent form on file to be tested. If they don’t, they must enroll in the virtual school. The virtual school enrolled about 2,000 students during the first half of the school year.

“Currently, 65% of students have submitted their consent to COVID test through their families. We need this number to be 100%,” Vitti said in a letter posted to the district’s website.

The new policy was welcome news to Shelly Baker, a district parent who has tested positive for COVID. She contracted it from her daughter and while she’s not certain, she believes her daughter may have picked it up at school. Now, at least six members of her family have the virus.

“Kids should be tested,” Baker said. “I feel strongly that if they don’t get their kids tested, they should leave them at home.”

Employees will be required to test Monday and Tuesday, and students also are encouraged to test. The district has set up 10 free testing sites. You can find those locations at the above link.

The district announced the change just three days before students were set to return to school buildings after a two-week holiday break.

“The city’s infection rate is at an all-time high of 36%,” Vitti said in a letter posted to the district’s website. “Infection rates at the county, tri-county, and state levels are also high. In fact, with several employees voluntarily testing through the district this week, our infection rate is nearly 20%.”

Vitti said a high rate of infection “will inevitably mean that a return to in person learning on … will lead to extensive COVID spread placing employees, students, and families at risk along with excessive staff shortages due to positive and close contact scenarios. This is especially the case with an overall low rate of vaccination within the city and among students.”

The announcement comes as the nation experiences a COVID rise that has been fueled by the more contagious omicron variant. It also comes as school officials across the nation evaluate their reopening plans for January. Newark Public Schools on Thursday announced it would begin the school year remote until Jan. 18. Some Michigan school districts have made similar decisions.

State officials, in a letter to superintendents Thursday, urged schools “to reinforce actions that can help alleviate the risks associated with this COVID-19 pandemic.”

The leaders of the Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are urging schools to require masks to be worn in school buildings by anyone over the age of 2, and they’re urging schools to encourage students and staff to get vaccinated.

When the school year began months ago, more than half of the students in the state were attending a school where wearing a mask was required. But some districts have since switched to a mask optional policy now that vaccines are available for children 5 and up.

The Detroit school board recently adopted a policy requiring staff be vaccinated by Feb. 18, and officials are considering a vaccine mandate for students as well. Staff already must submit to weekly COVID tests. Tests are also available for students, but parents must consent. About 60% of students have been cleared for testing.

In November, the district announced Fridays in December would be virtual learning days, in part because of rising COVID cases.

Elsewhere in metro Detroit, the Pontiac School District said on Thursday it would switch to fully remote learning until Jan. 18.

“The safety and wellbeing of our entire school district family is critical,” Pontiac Superintendent Kelley Williams said in a letter to parents posted on the district’s website. “We are hopeful this short-term pause to face-to-face learning will play a positive role in slowing the spread of this disease.”

The Hamtramck Public Schools also will be remote next week, and is offering multiple dates and locations for people to get COVID tests.

On social media, some Detroit district parents have been pushing leaders to switch to online learning for the first week or two of the year, saying they’re worried that many students and employees would bring COVID into school buildings.

Danielle Dunn was already planning to keep her daughter home from school next week whether the district made an announcement or not.

“The numbers are just so high,” said Dunn, a parent, alum, and volunteer in the district. Her daughter attends a pre-kindergarten Montessori program.

Dunn said she understands parents who don’t want their children vaccinated. But she doesn’t understand why parents are opposed to testing. She has been comfortable with her daughter’s classroom because they learn and eat in the same classroom and because most of the students are being tested regularly. But the recent surge in COVID cases has raised her worries.

And she’s not sure when she’ll feel comfortable sending her daughter back.

“I would have to know the numbers are down.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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