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Some Detroit students return to classes amid protests over coronavirus safety

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Chalkbeat Detroit, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here:

In the midst of a national debate about how schools can safely reopen in the fall, 2,000 Detroit children were expected to walk into classes Monday to do what they haven’t been able to do since mid-March — learn in person.

Only about 500 made it. On the first day of summer school in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, dozens of protesters citing health concerns stood outside one of the district’s bus terminals beginning at 5 a.m., blocking buses from being able to leave to pick up students to take them to school. The protesters included teachers.

Their actions meant students who needed to arrive by bus to a handful of the 23 summer school sites likely missed the first day of classes. Classes were expected to begin by 8:30 a.m. for students who walked or were dropped off, but at one school — Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School — a small trickle of students had arrived by the start of classes.

Overall, just a little more than 500 students made it to in-person classes on the first day out of about 2,000 that signed up for face-to-face instruction, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Monday afternoon.

 “Unfortunately, our medically fragile students that get direct pickup were most affected by the protest,” Vitti said.

The protests didn’t impact students whose buses left from other terminals.

By mid-afternoon, Vitti was vowing that the district would work around the protests and get students to school, saying there are “other means to pick up students and take them to school.”

Protestors vowed to take their fight to court.

“We think as things exist right now, we believe there will be students, teachers, and school workers who certainly are going to be infected with COVID-19,” said Shanta Driver, the national director of the activist group By Any Means Necessary, which planned Monday’s protest. She said the group would file a request for a preliminary injunction to stop the face-to-face classes.

In a series of tweets late morning, Vitti addressed the controversy.

“Last night and this morning I reflected and prayed on the balance between the concerns of protestors and the needs of our children and families. This is hard! When I visited schools this morning I knew we were doing the right thing for children.”

Vitti also addressed the need, saying “many of our children need face to face, direct engagement.” He said that while that should not be a requirement for all students, parents “should be able to choose face to face or online.”

Although the district isn’t the first to begin in-person classes in the wake of the pandemic, the return to school buildings is a significant — and to some, controversial — step. While the enrollment data indicate a number of parents wanted their kids in school, the move to open buildings was criticized by those who say it isn’t safe.

Mesa Henry was sitting in her idling car Monday morning outside Greenfield Union. She was planning to drop her two sons off for in-person learning, but she was having second thoughts.

“I really don’t want to send them. I’m iffy,” said Henry, who said she works in health care.

Henry said her kids need to be in school, and one in particular needs one-on-one help. But, “I’m worried about my kid’s health and I’m worried about my health.”

Those who do make it to summer school will be met with a series of safety precautions. Before they can enter buildings, staff must check student temperatures, and turn away anyone with a reading of more than 100.4. Students will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19. Staff had to be tested prior to the beginning of summer school. Everyone is required to wear a mask and social distancing is being practiced. Just 10 to 15 students are assigned to each classroom.

About 4,000 children are enrolled for the summer program. Half of them opted to attend classes in school buildings, while the rest will take classes online. More than 300 teachers signed up for the 170 positions.

The district may be one of the largest in the nation to attempt to bring students back to school buildings, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered closed in March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. In New York and Chicago, for instance, summer school is happening online only. Locally, some smaller districts, including Novi Community Schools, have already begun in-person summer classes.

Last week, teachers affiliated with the By Any Means Necessary group held protests hoping to stop the start of the summer classes.

Benjamin Royal, an organizer with the group, said the bus terminal protests were about protecting schools and communities from the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a deadly pandemic. People of all ages have died. Children have died,” he said.

He and other protesters said it doesn’t matter to them that parents chose the in-person option.

“Nobody should have the right to voluntarily put their child in a dangerous situation,” Royal said.

Royal is a teacher in the district. He’s also a member of the executive board for the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Terrence Martin, the union president, told members in a social media post Sunday night that if those teaching summer school find no personal protection equipment in their schools, “Staff are to exit the buildings immediately.”

There have been problems in other parts of the country. In Connecticut, the summer program was halted after someone inside a school building on the first day of classes tested positive for COVID. In Iowa, a school district also halted its summer program after just two days when eight students recorded high temperatures.

Monday’s opening is happening against a backdrop of intense debate about reopening schools for the 2020-21 school year. Across the nation, buildings were shut down in the spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and schools shifted to remote learning.

Most districts are considering plans that will provide a range of options for parents that include full-time in-person learning, full-time virtual learning, or a combination of the two. The Detroit district’s draft plan for reopening in the fall includes having high school students attend school on alternate weeks, while students in grades K-8 will attend school in person every day.

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing schools to fully reopen, and have threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that don’t.

The By Any Means Necessary protesters were joined by organizers of Detroit Will Breathe, the group behind a number of protests against racial injustice that have occurred in the city in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

One of the leaders of that latter effort, Tristan Taylor, told WDIV Local-4 Monday morning that the district should not be holding classes in person.

“It shouldn’t be an option,” he said.

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