Whitmer signs bill eliminating retention mandate in third grade reading law

Detroit school parents divided over virtual and in-person learning for fall

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Jessica Ounissi works nights at a Detroit gas station where she's constantly chastising adult customers to wear a mask inside to guard against spread of COVID-19. 

So the 36-year-old doesn't have a lot of faith her 9-year-old daughter would be taking the right steps to stay safe if she sends her back to school this fall. 

"You just can't control how kids interact," said Ounissi, noting her daughter is preparing to enter fourth grade at Coleman A. Young Elementary School in Detroit, and she'll be doing it online.

Debrina McNeal speaks during a Detroit Public Schools Community District Reopening of schools parent press conference at the Golightly Education Center in Detroit Friday.

"If adults don't even follow rules, you think little kids are going to follow them all the time? They're just not," she said. 

Ounissi was among a handful of Detroit Public Schools Community District parents who gathered Friday outside of Golightly Education Center to share views on the upcoming school year and whether they want their children to return to in-person learning or go virtual.

The group of parents assembled for a news conference ahead of the district's kickoff to a series of tele-town hall meetings to address the concerns and questions of Detroit families and urge parents to complete a survey on whether they'll opt for face-to-face or online instruction. 

"We're asking our families to please complete your survey," said Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman. "We need to ready our resources so that we can support their needs."

Wilson said the district distributed the online surveys a couple weeks ago and is asking parents to complete it by Aug. 4. The absolute deadline, she added, is Aug. 21.

Ta'Mara Williams speaks during a Detroit Public Schools Community District Reopening of schools parent press conference at the Golightly Education Center in Detroit Friday.

Only 30% of the district's families have submitted their preference so far, Wilson said. She declined to specify the breakdown of those seeking to return versus taking courses online until all responses are in. 

District students will be eligible to receive tablets and free wireless internet access to bridge the digital divide and remove barriers to completing online coursework.

Debrina McNeal is a stay-at-home mom but wants her 13-year-old daughter to return to seventh grade at Brenda Scott Academy in September. 

Her daughter follows an individualized education program and she can't provide those services at home, she said. 

"I'm making the sacrifice to put myself in danger (of getting COVID)," said McNeal, who said the decision has put her at odds with some family members. "But my daughter needs these services at school. She's a hands-on child."

Detroit parent Ta'Mara Williams is taking both routes. 

She's sending her 10th-grade daughter for in-person instruction. Her two youngest — a kindergarten and first-grader — are too "touchy and lovable" and she's afraid to send them back.

"It's hard to say 'yes,' and send your kid back to school. They want those hugs, they want those 'I miss yous,'" she said. "Elementary kids don't understand what's going on in the world."

DPSCD has scheduled six virtual town hall meetings throughout mid-August for parents to learn more about the 51,000-student district's Reopening Plan approved by the Board of Education on July 14.

The plan provides for smaller in-person classes and daily safety protocols including cleanings, mask-wearing and social distancing for those who choose to return their children to the district's more than 100 school buildings.

Some district teachers, labor leaders and community members are pushing back against the plan, despite the safety measures proposed. They contend it's unsafe to resume in-person instruction and have called for a school-based advisory committee to decide when in-person learning should resume in Detroit. 

"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, on Tuesday.

A coalition of educators from across the state, Michigan Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators (MI CORE), also made demands this week of state and federal leaders. Among them, waiting for a stretch of 14 days without new cases before reopening schools.

Ultimately, Detroit's plan will be contingent on guidelines by federal and state government. The district, officials noted, will abide by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decisions if a shift to fully online instruction is required based on the trajectory of the pandemic this fall.

"We want to transparently engage with all of our community to ensure they have the information needed to choose their learning path," DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. "We will be faithful to the safety measures outlined."

Vitti, during the Friday town hall, noted that more than $80 million has been allocated through the federal CARES Act to help Detroit's public school district with its strategy to keep students and staff safe. Officials said during Friday's virtual parent meeting that more than 700 questions had been submitted. 

The funding will be used in part to ensure teachers and students have protective equipment and DPSCD's nurses and school resource officers have N95 masks. 

"A lot of districts have not received these dollars," he said. "We have a density of poverty in Detroit that allows us to receive these dollars."

Although Detroit is offering optional COVID-19 screenings for children attending summer school based on a court order. But they don't have plans to test at that level this fall. It has not been mandated at this point by the state, officials added. 

"Legally, any parent who is opposed to this testing could sue the district and say 'it is unlawful to require my child to test to access the public school,'" Vitti noted when a question about testing for the virus was raised during Friday's town hall. "State law does not require local testing."

More details can be found on the district's website.