Angst over school reopening plans drives parents, educators to push back

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Uncertainty, angst and frustration over school reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic have Michigan parents and teachers pushing back, making demands and plans of their own.

One parent says she is preparing to hire a tutor for her two elementary-age children and educate them in a pod with other families after the Grosse Pointe School System did not provide critical information about its reopening plan this week.

"Nobody is giving us answers and I don't feel safe," Katy Wereley said. "It's to the point where I don’t have any other options. I will do whatever it takes for my children to have a safe and healthy education."

On Tuesday, teachers, school labor leaders and community members said it is unsafe to return to school this fall inside school buildings and called for a school-based COVID-19 Advisory Committee to decide when in-person learning can resume in Detroit, the state's largest district.

"If teachers and union leaders do not feel it is safe to go back to work, we won't go back to work," said Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Later on Tuesday, a coalition of educators from across the state, the Michigan Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators (MI CORE), also made demands of state and federal leaders, which included waiting for a stretch of 14 days without new cases before schools reopen, equitable funding and protections for learning and teaching conditions.

The group included Kathy Bommarito, a teacher in the Avondale Schools in Oakland County. Bommarito said Tuesday she is anxious and scared about returning to work amid the pandemic.

"My classroom is a petri dish filled with germs. I remember my first year, I came home with everything. It's like I'm a first-year teacher and will come home with this to my family," she said.

"You are asking us to put our trust in other people's hands. I have 150 students. That's 300 parents. ... You're asking me to trust every one of those people to follow guidelines. I'm sorry, but I don’t trust all those people. I trust myself." 

Public health experts have said Michigan's 1.5 million students can safely return to classrooms this fall, but it will require a series of precautions within school buildings and potentially, additional restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19 outside of them.

Each district in Michigan is creating its own reopening plan, working under the requirements and recommendations of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's reopening school guidelines.

Detroit school Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he's willing to discuss improvements to the district's reopening plan.

Whitmer's guidelines dictate whether classes can be in-person or remote, depending on the phase of coronavirus spread in each region of the state at the time school resumes. Under the current Phase 4, districts can hold in-person school but many have offered online options to families who are not comfortable returning.

On Tuesday, Whitmer said "our actions today" will determine whether the COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations increase or decline. The state will remain "nimble" when deciding what can happen with schools, many of which are scheduled to reopen a month from now, she said.

“If the numbers continue to go up, then we may not be able to resume in-person instruction," the governor said.

Some large districts, such as Lansing, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor public schools, have indicated they plan to start the new school year online due to the pandemic, which has caused 79,176 confirmed cases and 6,170 fatalities in Michigan as of Tuesday.

Some districts, such as the one in the Grosse Pointes, are weighing offering in-person and online tracks. Some parents in the affluent district have pressed for a hybrid of the two.

"Hybrid is in the plan to be submitted to the Wayne County RESA and Michigan Department of Education," superintendent Gary Niehaus said Tuesday of initial plans. "We will continue to survey parents and faculty as we move forward."

Monday night, U.S. Senate Republicans earmarked $70 billion in K-12 funds as part of their coronavirus relief proposal, with most of the money for schools that reopen with at least some in-person instruction this fall, according to CNBC.

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said school reopening has hit a boiling point in many communities because districts are releasing specific plans, whether they be all-remote or hybrid.

"There is a lot of concern on a lot of different fronts right now," Spadafore said. "Districts are looking at staff and safety with uncertain budgeting. ... We have angst from parents and staff related to the plan, whether it be virtual or in person. You have staff who are being asked to dramatically change their craft with social distancing protocols or teaching online."

While most Michigan schools begin their years at the end of August or the start of September, the need for answers is pressing as families and staff plan for what reopening during a pandemic will look like.

Detroit Public Schools Community District announced its plan for face-to-face learning in June and is sticking with that plan, despite recent lawsuits over its summer school program and demands from teachers, students and labor leaders to hold virtual classes because of health and safety concerns.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, wants assurances that students will return to in-person classes under safe conditions.

Martin, whose union represents Detroit district teachers, said he has sent a list of demands to DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti to meet and consult with labor leaders, educators, medical professionals and members of the community to develop and implement the reopening plan. 

Martin said the district, which has released a plan for in-person learning inside school buildings for all students, needs to plan now for distance learning this fall and only consider in-person learning when COVID cases are clearly declining and essential protocols are in place.

"We recognize a need to pull public health experts into reopening discussions and to provide support on an ongoing basis," he said. "Testing and contract tracing in schools are essential strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID in our community. Any plan that falls short of this puts staff and students at risk. Data and medical experts must drive decisions around offering in-person instruction."

The group wants the COVID-19 Advisory Committee to feature two subcommittees — one with representatives from the Detroit and Wayne County health departments, local pediatricians, mental and infectious disease health experts; the second subcommittee would be comprised of community partners, school leaders and staff, educators, students, parents and afterschool experts.

Schools should remain closed until the advisory committee confirms that reopening is safe, officials said.

The district's reopening plan calls for classes to be limited to 20 students in one room at a time, auditoriums and cafeterias to be repurposed as classrooms to allow for maximum social distancing, and for high school students to attend in-person classes on alternating weeks.

In a response to Martin on Tuesday, Vitti asked if the teachers union was willing to risk state and federal funding if the district ignored a proposal by state GOP lawmakers to mandate face-to-face instruction.

“The school board has already approved the district’s reopening plan, and we are three-quarters into the implementation of that plan, which meets the governor’s Return to Learn Task Force requirements,” Vitti said. “We did engage all union leaders in the draft plan and held virtual meetings with teachers/school-based staff, school-based administration, district administration, parents, students, and a broader community meeting.

"With that said, we are more than willing to meet again to discuss how the reopening plan can be improved. Certainly, any reopening matters or changes that require bargaining will be properly negotiated.”

Vitti also said the district met with all union leaders to get feedback the week the draft reopening plan was released at the end of June.

"The issue here is that DFT does not agree with the F2F (face-to-face) educational option embedded in the reopening plan," Vitti said. "We will continue to have meetings to review and discuss the reopening plan between now and the beginning of the school year with all internal and external stakeholders."

The leaders of other unions in DPSCD also expressed concerns about reopening in person.

Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals, said the health and safety of students, educators and staff are paramount.

"We are two weeks away from our scheduled start for our members to begin to return to work. However, many of our members are extremely concerned. There must be mandatory and regular testing protocols for all," Jackson said.

The group is also asking the district not to require any employee to work in person and provide alternative arrangements.

Stephanie Carreker, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, said all employees are essential and should be treated as such.

"No employee should be forced to return to work for fear of being terminated because they are having feelings of apprehension, because of their health, age or family issues; especially when there is still so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19," Carreker said.

Health experts have said the safety level of schools will largely depend on what happens with COVID-19's spread over the coming weeks in Michigan and whether schools can institute precautions to boost social distancing and provide personal protective equipment for teachers and students.

A lawsuit seeking to shut down summer school classes at DPSCD over COVID-19 concerns remains pending in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

On Monday, city health officials announced three students attending summer classes in Detroit public schools tested positive for COVID-19.

Arlyssa Heard, the parent of a DPSCD student and member of 482Forward, an education organizing network in Detroit, said Tuesday she wants her son to return to his school when his safety can be assured.

"This has got to be one of the hardest decisions I have to make in my life. ... The stakes are too high for me to get this wrong," Heard said. "I want my child back in the classroom when it is safe. We want virtual until it's safe."