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Group files lawsuit to stop summer school in Detroit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A lawsuit seeking to shut down summer school at the Detroit Public Schools Community District was filed Wednesday in the Court of Claims by a group that includes students, parents, teachers and a bus driver.

The group, represented by the organization By Any Means Necessary, also a plaintiff, is asking a judge to order the district's summer school program, already underway in two dozen buildings across the city, to shut down until public health officials say they are safe to reopen.

The lawsuit alleges the district, in its decision to hold in-person summer school this week, is "showing no concern" for the lives of students, teachers and families and will "refuel" the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Michigan and nationally.

The case is filed against district superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and state health officials.

"As things stand now, DPSCD is consciously creating a cataclysmic man-made health disaster which the Mayor of Detroit and the Governor of Michigan are allowing to take place," the suit alleges.

Demonstrators block the driveways of the Detroit Public Schools West Side Bus Terminal to keep school buses from running on the first day of summer school, in Detroit, July 13, 2020. Concerns about COVID-19 and a lack of safety measures prompted the protesters to demand that schools close.

The district opened buildings on Monday for the first day of summer school for about 500 students, marking the first time since mid-March that students entered schools for face-to-face instruction.

Vitti said on Monday his district is following all federal and state guidelines to safely reopen school buildings this week and it's time for students to get back to learning and for adults to stop making excuses.

On Wednesday, Vitti said face-to-face summer school is voluntary and no student, parent or teacher was required to participate in person.

"Voluntary face-to-face summer school is allowable under Michigan COVID safe reopening phases and our safety plan meets any reopening of school requirements as described by the federal or state government, including the governor’s 'Return to Learn Task Force' requirements," Vitti said.

"We are offering the same face-to-face services to children and families as over 300 day cares are to Detroit children in the city. In fact, our COVID safety standards exceed daycare safety standards," Vitti said. "If we are not legally able to provide face-to-face instruction to students this summer then the assumption should be that schools cannot legally reopen in the fall or in the near future throughout the country or in the state of Michigan."

The district's back to school reopening plan is aligned with CDC guidance, recommendations from the governor's Return to Learn Council's Roadmap and national teacher's union guidance, Vitti said.

Lawrence T. Garcia, corporation counsel for the city of Detroit, said the mayor does not run Detroit's schools, and he had no part in deciding whether or when to have summer classes.

"The people who filed this lawsuit obviously have no idea who makes these decisions - and who should get the credit, or blame, for them. I will seek to have the mayor dismissed, given his utter non-involvement," Garcia said.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Wednesday the governor is not requiring in-person instruction for anyone but declined to comment further. 

Earlier this week, BAMN demonstrators picketed in front of the district's west-side bus terminal on Greenfield Road, blocking buses from leaving to pick up students who needed transportation to summer school.

Shanta Driver, attorney for BAMN, said the lawsuit contains affidavits from students, parents and teachers who are worried about the safety of attending school as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.

"It makes no sense to send kids to summer school when the numbers are rising," Driver said on Tuesday. "On top of that CDC memos have said the fastest way for the virus to spread is to send kids back to school. ...This is life or death for everyone who goes into these schools."

Driver said the lawsuit is focused on stopping summer school only, not the fall session.

According to the district's website, students can choose between in-person classes or virtual classes for summer learning. 

Demonstrators block the driveways of the Detroit Public Schools West Side Bus Terminal to keep school buses from running on the first day of summer school, in Detroit, July 13, 2020. Concerns about COVID-19 and a lack of safety measures prompted the protesters to demand that schools close.

Precautions the district said it will take include the requirement of masks for students and teachers, self-assessments and temperature checks for everyone who enters the buildings, and negative COVID-19 test results needed to be submitted by all adults working in summer schools. 

The district is also requiring a ratio of 10-15 students per 1 adult for each classroom. 

Summer classes are scheduled for four hours on Monday through Thursday. The summer semester will end Aug. 6. The district has said that summer learning is on a voluntary basis for students and teachers.

Some districts across Michigan are holding summer school, mostly online only, but some like Benton Harbor Area Schools are holding class outdoors as a health precaution.

On June 30, Whitmer released guidelines for how Michigan's K-12 schools should reopen in the fall and said her administration would provide $256 million to help districts implement their local plans.

Whitmer said last week that she would not send students, teachers and staff into schools unless it was safe, adding that the trajectory of COVID-19 cases in Michigan was "very concerning."