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Detroit students return to classrooms, but it's not exactly "back to normal"

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti
Detroit Public Schools Community District

Around 20,000 students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District are expected back in classrooms on Monday.

DPSCD suspended in-person learning when COVID-19 cases spiked in November. Now that community positivity rates have dropped well below 5%, the district decided it was time to re-open its doors, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

“I think it’s a sign, optimistically, of moving closer to the other side of this pandemic, and moving back to what we are used to doing, which is working with our students in person,” Vitti said. “But it’s going to take awhile for Detroit to get where I think other districts will be with in-person learning, because we still have work to do with reassuring our families that it’s safe, and bringing our teachers back.”

Vitti said that a little over 40% of the district’s students are expected back this week. But many students will still spend at least some time learning virtually in the classroom, because only about 30% of DPSCD teachers have opted to come back. An agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers allows teachers to decide if they’re going to teach virtually or in-person each quarter.

“Right now, we have a bit of an imbalance between the demand of families for in-person learning, and teachers willing to teach in-person,” said Vitti.

Vitti said he’s hopeful that more students and teachers will return as time goes on. In the meantime, the district is taking a host of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Masks are mandatory for all. Teachers must have a negative COVID test to return. Desks are spaced within classrooms, and class sizes are capped at 20. There are daily symptom and temperature checks for students, and online check-in for staff.

And there’s a new measure in place: enhanced COVID testing. Each DPSCD “feeder pattern” (schools cluster based on high schools) will offer a clinic with free, ongoing testing.

“Any employee, student, family, at any time at no cost, can be tested,” Vitti said. “And we're hoping that people voluntarily test so that we can detect any outbreaks.”

Vitti has been steadfast about providing in-person learning for Detroit families that want it, provided that community spread of COVID-19 meets certain thresholds. He’s faced some opposition from groups who say it’s simply not safe, but that hasn’t changed the district’s basic position.

“When we compare ourselves to other school districts in Michigan, we are doing much more than other districts from a safety point of view,” Vitti said. “We put all of our positive cases on our website by school. We do a robo call or robo text to the school if there's any positive cases. So, again, those are things that other districts just simply are not doing.”


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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.
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