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With COVID rising, Detroit closes classrooms; other districts may follow

Detroit Public Schools Community District will switch to fully remote learning on Monday, in the wake of quickly rising COVID-19 cases and positivity rates in the city.

The announcement early Thursday is significant statewide because Detroit’s school system, with 51,000 students, is the largest in Michigan, and because DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been an outspoken proponent of keeping classrooms open during the pandemic.

In-person classes are suspended until at least Jan. 11.

More school districts may be following suit in the coming days, with test positivity rates higher in suburban counties than they are currently in  Michigan’s largest city.

The Troy School District in Oakland County closed its buildings Monday, and nearby Bloomfield Hills Schools and West Bloomfield School District also went fully remote recently.

“I suspect many more (districts will close) by the end of next week,” Troy Superintendent Richard Machesky told Bridge Michigan Thursday following the Detroit announcement. 

In Detroit, school buildings opened at the beginning of the school year. Vitti had been critical of school closures on social media, arguing that schools, with mandatory face masks, social distancing and rapid contact tracing when a student or staffer tests positive were comparatively safe. School officials across the state argue that most virus transmission is occurring outside of school, in social and family settings.

The district’s reopening plan developed in August indicated that if the test positivity rate among those tested for the coronavirus in Detroit approached 5 percent to 7 percent, the district would consider discontinuing face-to-face instruction in schools. The city infection rate is currently 6.4 percent.  

“Despite the reality of COVID-19, we have been able to keep employees and students safe,” Vitti wrote in a statement Thursday announcing the school building closure. 

“The District relied on science and the data to reopen schools for in person learning this summer and fall and relied on the same criterion to decide that it was no longer safe for our students and employees to work in an in person school environment. Without a vaccine, we will remain accountable to that 5-7 percent infection rate.” 

About 25 percent of the district’s 51,000 students were learning in-person, with the rest choosing to be fully-remote or taking online classes in learning centers set up in school buildings.

DPSCD’s more than 100 district schools will be closed for classes as of Monday, but will continue to remain open to support families and students through the deployment of additional electronic devices and educational materials, technology support, phone calls, serving meals, and any medical support through nurses, according to a statement from the district. 

The announcement does not affect charter and private schools in the city.

As is the case currently for Detroit students who’ve chosen to be fully online during the pandemic, starting Monday, all students can receive three free school meals for pickup at their schools on Mondays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and four meals on Thursdays during the same time frame.

Detroit’s decision could foretell a rash of impending school closures around the state as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations spike. 

As the rest of the state has seen cases soar and the positive test rate rise, the city of Detroit has seen some of the lowest case counts, on a per-capita basis, in the state.

But those rates are rising rapidly, too: The city was averaging 76 new cases a day a week ago but that's risen to 108; the positive test rate is now at 6.4 percent, up from 4.4 percent the week before. (A rate of 3 percent or lower is a sign that community spread is under control.)

The city is also the business hub for a region where the positive test rate is soaring: it's at nearly 12 percent in suburban Wayne County, 12.6 percent in Oakland and 16.9 percent in Macomb.

As rates in those counties have risen markedly in the last few weeks, Detroit's have inched up as well and hospitals in Detroit and the region have seen hundreds more COVID-19 patients.

In late October, superintendents of three West Michigan counties signed a joint letter to their communities warning that if COVID case counts continue to rise schools would have to close. They cautioned that safety precautions in schools could only do so much to control the spread of the potentially deadly virus, and that residents needed to mask up and follow safety precautions if they wanted schools to remain open.

“It’s absolutely getting harder and harder to keep schools open with the numbers going the way they are,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, an organization focused on education policy. “It’s only going to get more difficult and trending toward impossible to keep them open.”

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