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Detroit teachers authorize strike over safety fears

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit teachers voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to authorize a safety strike over concerns they have about reopening school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers participated in the vote, which was 91% in favor and 9% against a safety strike, DFT president Terrence Martin said.

The vote gives the DFT executive board the authority to launch a safety strike at a later date if negotiations break down with the district, Martin said.

"It is not an action we take lightly, it is a vote of confidence that we will do whatever we need to to do to ensure and safety of our members and students of Detroit Public Schools Community District," Martin said.

He said the vote to authorize a safety strike means members agree to teach and work remotely, while not endangering their safety and is not a work stoppage.

The state's largest district, with 51,000 students, approved a reopening plan last month that calls 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 classroom buildings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some teachers, labor leaders and community members have blasted the plan, arguing it's unsafe to resume in-person instruction. The district has said it 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.

Martin said 80% of his members want to teach online only while 15% want to teach face-to-face.

According to the district, parent surveys show 75% plan online learning for their children, with 25% preferring in-person instruction.

"Our fear is that there will be members who are forced to teach in person even if they are uneasy and or are those with pre-existing conditions," Martin said.

Late Wednesday, the district issued a statement: "While we acknowledge the action taken today by DFT, we are also confident the school board and the district in discussion with DFT will result in a safe reopening of schools."

The DFT has issued a list of proposals to the district. They include:

•Developing a new reopening plan with the union

•Offering hazard pay for teachers and other staffers and agreeing not to outsource school service to private companies

•Giving staff the chance to opt out of in-person work if they or a family member is considered high risk for COVID-19

•Creating a health advisory committee that includes city and county health officials as well as students, parents, teachers and community partners

•Offering in-person learning to special needs students while waiting until the region moves to Phase 6 of the state's coronavirus recovery plan before bringing back all students.

Earlier Wednesday, district officials tweeted that teachers are not required to teach in person.

"Teachers Have Options. No Teacher is Required to Teach Face to Face. Most students are selecting online learning," the district said on Twitter.

Detroit school Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the district is talking with the teachers union about its safety concerns.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti said on Twitter: "Conversations with DFT have increased over the past week and we are both bargaining in good faith. The reopening process is very hard, on multiple levels, but we will get this right for our students, families and employees."

Vitti also tweeted that it is more accurate to say that DFT members are voting to give DFT leadership the authority to consider or use a strike to bargain.

The district is scheduled to begin classes Sept. 8. 

In July, three students attending summer classes in Detroit public schools tested positive for COVID-19.

A federal judge in Detroit had ordered that all summer school students in the district be tested for the virus after a social justice organization and a group of teachers, parents and students sued to close school buildings to classes due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases. 

Summer school classes ended earlier this month.

jchambers@detroitnews.com