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Detroit school district delays decision on lifting mask mandate

Students at a Detroit elementary school line up as they walk through the hallways.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti planned to make a decision on the mask mandate in early April. But strong opposition form the district’s largest employees’ union has halted a repeal of the policy.

Valaurian Waller / Bridge Detroit

The Detroit school district is delaying a decision to lift its mask mandate in the face of strong opposition from teachers union members and a potential legal challenge.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had planned to make a decision on the mask mandate after spring break ended on April 3. At the time he said he would move to a mask-optional policy as long as COVID case rates and hospitalizations remained low. Infection rates across the school district have remained below 1% in recent months, while the citywide rates are running below 3%.

But Vitti said that the Detroit Federation of Teachers is “not supportive of voluntary masking.” The union also believes that lifting the mandate would violate an agreement the union and district approved last summer outlining safety protocols ahead of the new school year. That agreement, which expires June 30, requires masks.

Terrence Martin, president of the federation, said the union is “exploring all options” and is preparing a legal challenge if Vitti lifts the mandate before June 30.

Vitti said a legal challenge would delay lifting the mandate until after the agreement expires.

“The worst-case situation is that we will shift to voluntary masking districtwide on July 1 unless the federal or state health departments require masking in schools,” Vitti said. “I doubt this will happen. I am hopeful that DFT will reconsider their position before July 1.”

The last day of the school year for Detroit Public Schools Community District students is June 27. If the district lifts the mandate on July 1, it would be ahead of summer school, which begins on July 11.

The school board approved COVID safety measures such as a mask requirement and weekly testing for employees as part of the district’s reopening plan. The plan also instituted 3 feet of social distancing, as well as daily symptom checks and rigorous cleaning of buildings.

Health officials across Michigan began relaxing mask rules and recommendations a few months ago for K-12 schools and day care centers, as COVID cases and hospitalization rates declined. The decision left it up to local school districts to decide whether to keep those requirements in place.

Martin said district officials were considering a repeal of the mask policy without coming to an agreement with the union.

A recent survey of union members found that roughly 60% of teachers favored keeping the mask mandate, up from an even split among teachers a few weeks prior.

The jump from 50% to 60% is “alarming,” Martin added, and “enough to keep the mandate right where it is.”

Across the Northeast, cities and school districts have had to reconsider COVID safety protocols in light of a rise in cases in part of being driven by a subvariant of the highly infectious omicron variant. 

Face masks temporarily returned to Philadelphia public schools as the city moved to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in mid-April. Newark Public Schools will continue to keep its mask requirement and other COVID preventive measures in place as the infection rate rises across the city. Classrooms in New York City are currently mask-optional as the city has moved into a “medium” risk category for the spread of COVID in recent weeks.

As of the week of April 25, the Detroit district’s infection rate remained low, with 0.94% of tests coming back positive, while the city’s infection rate was at 2.5% over a seven-day average as of April 28.

The union, Martin said, is willing to be flexible on the mask policy depending on what future teacher survey results indicate and whether the district comes back to the negotiating table.

“What we have in place remains in place till the end of the school year, unless the district is willing to come to the table and bargain in good faith to change,” he said.

Detroit is among the few remaining school districts in the state, along with Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, that still have a mask requirement.

Among the factors weighing on his decision making, Vitti added, is ensuring that students are comfortable as temperatures begin to rise in school classrooms. Without air conditioning in most school buildings, he added, behavioral issues may increase if students are uncomfortable with having to wear masks.

“This will set up unnecessary confrontations between teachers and students,” Vitti said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to make it clear that the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and not Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, believes that lifting the district’s mask mandate before June 30 would violate a letter of agreement between the district and the union.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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