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Vitti: Concerns about Detroit summer school "legitimate," but program will go on

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti
Detroit Public Schools Community District

Hundreds of Detroit students started in-person summer school programs in Detroit Public Schools Community District buildings on Monday, in the face of some public opposition.

A small group of protesters blocked the exit to a school bus depot on the city’s west side, preventing the buses from picking up more than 200 enrolled students, said DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti, who was a guest on Stateside on Monday, acknowledged that there’s a lot of legitimate “angst” about students returning to classrooms while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. He said making the decision to go ahead with in-person summer school was “far from easy,” but said after visiting several schools on Monday he felt like it was the right decision.

“I’m not interested in treating any one of our children as guinea pigs,” Vitti said. “That’s not my intent at all.”

“In fact, if parents did not sign up for face to face learning, then we wouldn’t provide it. The whole structure of summer school this year was meeting parents and students where they are at.”

Vitti said that when DPSCD surveyed parents about possible return-to-learn options, around half favored in-person summer school. He said online learning didn’t work for many Detroit kids after schools shut down in March, and some parents watched their kids fall behind, but felt ill-equipped to support their learning. Some worried about kids becoming depressed and isolated.

“For other parents, they’re just not in the socioeconomic situation to be at home,” Vitti said. “And they need the school system to provide the education and childcare so that they can work.”

Vitti said DPSCD will have the “most stringent, rigorous safety strategy that you’re going to see across the country.” As for the fall, he said if Michigan remains in its current Phase 4 of combatting COVID-19, the district plans on a hybrid model—part in-person learning, part online, with fully online options for parents who don’t feel comfortable sending kids back. “We’re going to work through the demand side of what parents and students need, coupled with the number of teachers that we’ll need to do either face-to-face or online,” he said.

But some, including the protesters who blocked the buses on Monday morning, feel the district is being reckless.

Shanta Driver is national chair of the group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which organized the protest. She said the group also plans to sue DPSCD to stop the summer school program.

Driver said that at current levels, the group believes it’s a virtual certainty some students or teachers will become infected with COVID-19, and some will die. “Nobody should be allowed to jeopardize the health of a child,” she said. “We just think that to jeopardize the lives of students and their well-being is something that needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.”

Driver questioned whether DPSCD is actually prepared to follow through on its safety protocols. She said that as of Monday, some school bus drivers had not been given hand sanitizer, and seemed unaware of safety protocols including distancing children on the buses.

Vitti admitted that adjusting to the “new normal” of wearing masks, temperature checks, and other measures will take time. But he remains adamant that in-person learning will be a must for some students, and the district needs to figure out how to do it.

But Vitti said there are “many more questions that need to be answered, mainly at the state level”—such as funding for the hybrid model, what to do about teachers who don’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom, what the schools' budget will look like, and most importantly, what is the status of the pandemic come September.

Vitti also chastised the Trump administration, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for insisting that schools fully re-open for all students in the fall, or risk losing federal funding.

“There’s not even a plan for that,” Vitti said. “I am afraid that that kind of approach will continue, and there will be threats of de-funding.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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