The Detroit school district may rescind its vaccination mandate for school employees following a policy review by board members, Deputy Superintendent Iranetta Wright said during Tuesday’s school board meeting.
The district currently has not issued any disciplinary action to employees who are unvaccinated, Wright said, but the district’s policy committee will review the policy at its next meeting on March 15. If the policy is rescinded, it would allow the roughly 1,100 staff members who are unvaccinated to remain employed.
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“We do anticipate with the changes and what’s happening right now with COVID … going back to the policy committee for a revision to the employee vaccine mandate,” Wright said during the meeting.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat in February that it was unlikely he would push to dismiss teachers who refused to be vaccinated, citing a lack of state or local support for an employee vaccine requirement.
Staff vaccination rates have increased slightly since the last school board meeting in February. Roughly 84% of school employees have been vaccinated, up from 81%. The district has approved 279 staff exemptions for medical or religious reasons, and it has denied 27 exemption requests, while 227 requests are pending.
About 98% of students have consented to the district’s weekly COVID testing, up from 96% last month.
In other business Tuesday, the board approved an increase in the stipend its members receive for attending meetings, and welcomed new student representatives to the board. The board’s approach to public comments also drew criticism during the meeting.
Board shuts down speakers during public comment
Nearly a dozen people who spoke during Tuesday’s board meeting were abruptly cut off during a public comment session. Former and current district students and teachers were lobbying board members for the reinstatement of a veteran Detroit teacher who wants faculty to be able teach from home if they have certain medical conditions.
Nicole Conaway, a 15-year district math and science teacher, alleged that last month she received a termination letter from the district after she repeatedly asked to be allowed to teach virtually, due to her recurring issues with her sinuses as well as chronic asthma, which put her at acute risk if she is infected with COVID-19.
In the termination letter, Conaway said, the district informed her that she had three choices: return to in-person teaching at a school, re-apply for the Family Medical Leave Act, or resign. Conaway also said the district denied her paid sick time through the Family Medical Leave Act by claiming that her chronic asthma was not covered.
The majority of commenters who spoke in favor of Conaway’s reinstatement identified themselves as members of the By Any Means Necessary activist group, which has opposed face-to-face learning during the pandemic. If the board moved forward to terminate Conaway, speakers said, it could impact other teachers seeking medical accommodation to work remotely.
Christine Abood, a retired Detroit school teacher of 40 years, said Conaway “should be protected and she should not be bullied and threatened into a termination simply because she is immunocompromised.”
Conaway, who spoke during the public comment section, told board members Tuesday that “beyond the consequences for me, this decision will harm students and this district,” particularly students “in the virtual school right now who need a science teacher.” Conaway filed a lawsuit in federal court in November, asking a judge to rule that the district should allow her to work virtually.
In recent weeks, the district has transferred some in-person teachers to the DPSCD Virtual School due to a rise in student enrollment since the fall semester. But in order to teach at the school, the district requires teachers to work on-site at a school building.
Detroit Board Chair Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said the board would not make decisions Tuesday about dismissing school employees. But as the night wore on, some virtual commenters who continued to call in about Conaway’s situation were cut off from speaking before the end of their allotted three minutes.
“People who are signed up to speak should have the right to speak, that is what it means to have a public meeting,” said Benjamin Royal, a former Detroit school teacher and an organizer of the group who said he resigned earlier this year to avoid contracting COVID.
But Peterson-Mayberry said the board can limit comments it deems repetitive, citing the district’s policy on public participation during board meetings. The policy was adopted in 2019.
“When the topics are the exact same, and the comments are very similar, then we’ve heard you, and that’s why I wanted to make sure that people knew that Ms. Conaway was not on the list tonight for termination,” Peterson-Mayberry said, adding that commenters can continue to call or email board members with their feedback.
Board members approve a compensation increase for themselves
The Detroit school board approved a sizable increase to the compensation each member receives for attending meetings and conducting other board business.
Under the revamped policy, the maximum annual compensation for attending meetings, training, and workshops for each of the seven board members will increase $6,000 per year to $15,000. Board members would be compensated for attending regular board meetings, school board committee meetings, and any meetings where a board member “is representing the board in an official capacity,” the policy states.
Previously, board members received a stipend of $100 per meeting. The new stipend is $250.
However, the new policy caps the number of annual meetings board members could receive these stipends for at 60.
School board introduces youth delegates
The school board announced its first cohort of student representatives who will serve and discuss district-related matters alongside the board during school board meetings.
Students and staff members selected seniors Emerson Jeffries of Cass Technical High School and Brooke Snow of Detroit School of Arts as the student delegates. Sophomore Perriel Pace of Legacy Academy will serve as an alternate.
Spearheaded by board member Misha Stallworth West, the addition of these representatives is intended to prioritize student input on academic, financial, and policy decisions made by the board. Student representatives can offer comments during meetings but will not have voting power on the board.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org