Detroit schools' fall plan: Shorter days, smaller classes, lots of precautions

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Classes would be limited to 20 students in one room at a time, auditoriums and cafeterias would be repurposed as classrooms to allow for maximum social distancing and high school students would attend in-person class on alternating weeks.

That's according to a draft plan to reopen school this fall at Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The plan, released late Friday, also calls for daily screenings of students for COVID-19 symptoms, mandated testing for all staff from within two weeks of reporting to work and a shortened school day — six hours instead of the traditional seven to 7.5 hours.

Students in Detroit and across the state have been out of school buildings since mid-March, forced into a crash course in online learning at home because of the coronavirus outbreak. The 2019-20 school year wraps up this month, and educators are starting to pitch plans for the 2020-21 school year without knowing whether the pandemic will be winding down or flaring up.

Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti says of the district's draft plan for reopening, "We are trying to meet parents where they are at."

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Monday that in-person instruction will be offered in schools starting Sept. 8 but schedules, classroom spaces and day-to-day operations will all look different to allow for smaller group settings and social distancing.

"This is uncharted territory," Vitti said. "Obviously our work in Detroit has to look different due to the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on the community. We are trying to meet parents where they are at."

Students in all grades would be required to wear masks. Vitti said the district plans to purchase and distribute personal protective equipment for students and staff to use when in buildings. The district is considering the use of disposable and reusable masks and reusable face guards.

The plans calls for screening 50,000 students with temperature checks across 100 buildings but did not detail logistics such as time or staffing needs. Vitti said the district is working on how to perform forehead temperature checks at multiple points of entry into school buildings.

Under the school plan, virtual instruction will expand, Vitti said, and include more live instruction and greater course options than under current conditions. All 50,000 students will have access to a laptop and internet connectivity through the district's $23 million Connected Futures initiative.

A district survey of 4,000 parents found that 61% are prepared to send students back to school face-to-face in September if safety precautions are taken and 75% of families said they would prefer a mix of virtual and face-to-face instruction in the fall.

"As families return to work outside of home, the return to face to face instruction is a necessity for our families, community, and economy," Vitti said in the plan. "For many students, too much learning is being lost through a 'one size fits all' online learning model."

The plan, which includes summer school, was crafted using federal health guidelines, recommendations from the American Federation of Teachers, and the state’s Safe Start plan, which the Whitmer administration is using to determine when to reopen various parts of the economy.

The draft plan has four phases, the first being the current arrangement where schools remain closed. The three remaining phases move between "improving" and "containing" phases of the Michigan Safe Start Plan.

Vitti said the district is operating virtual feedback sessions with students, families, teachers, school leaders, support staff, union leaders and the greater community before implementing a school reopening plan.

Asked on Monday if the district has approval from the state to open summer school on July 13, Vitti said he still had not gotten an answer.

"I've been vocal if you are allowing students to go to the mall and now adults to go to casinos, I think children in small groups should be able to go to summer school," Vitti said.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he has seen the plan but was spending Monday taking a deeper dive into it.

Terrence Martin, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he has a lot of questions about the district's proposal for restarting in-school learning this fall.

Martin said he looks forward to discussing the plan with the district at the bargaining table on Tuesday and Friday this week.

"There are changes in our working conditions in this plan, from virtual teaching to alternating weeks of school. What are some of their proposed scales of work? What are the procedures we are going to take?" Martin said. "What if there is a spike in the virus?"

The plan says all staff will be required to test negative for COVID-19 within 14 days of starting summer school, to be held in July and August. Martin said he has questions about that.

"Is this mandated? Who is going to pay for it? What if teachers don’t want to get tested?" Martin said.

Parent Tanayna Grant says she has a lot of questions too about the school plan but first she wants to know where her two children stand in terms of academic achievement after three months of online learning.

Grant, who has a child in middle school and in high school, said she received a link to enroll them in summer school but has no idea what kind of help they need since they have not been assessed.

"And when school starts back, if it's going to be a six-hour day, what time will schools start if you have to take their temperatures?" Grant said. "I think going back into the schools should be optional. My older daughter said she is fine with being at home and doing school."

DPSCD is among several Michigan districts offering tentative plans for the fall. K-12 buildings in Michigan remain closed to instruction. Most school years begin before or just after Labor Day in Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has appointed 25 members to her COVID-19 Return to Learn Advisory Council. The council will formalize a process for determining how schools might be able to reopen in the fall.

As districts try to plan for that, they also face an estimated $2.39 billion revenue drop in the current and next year's state school budgets — a reduction of about $685 for every student in the state.