Detroit school paraprofessionals seek remote work option

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Para-educators and food service workers in the Detroit Public Schools Community District say they want to have the same option as teachers and decide whether to work in the classroom as COVID-19 rates climb.

On Tuesday, the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals sent an open letter to the DPSCD school board, asking them to allow members to choose whether to work in-person and to compensate those who do.

"We are extremely concerned about the district’s decision to move forward with requiring our members report in-person on Wednesday, April 21. COVID-19 is surging in our city," Donna Jackson, president of the DFP, wrote.

"At a time when one of our members has died from COVID-19 and rates are skyrocketing in Detroit, we continue to feel that the district views our members as expendable, second-class employees."

DPSCD has paused in-person learning through May 18 but on Monday it is reopening its Learning Centers, where students can learn online with teachers but at a school. Students can also receive additional learning support from staff and eat breakfast and lunch.

Jackson asked the board to allow in-person work to be voluntary and for members who choose to go in to be "adequately compensated for the health risks they’re enduring."

"Our members have continually risked their health during this pandemic. The current conditions are extremely threatening," Jackson said

About 20.5% of COVID-19 tests in the city are returning positive. The state's positivity rate has dropped to about 15%, according to its database. 

Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for DPSCD, said school employees, including paraprofessionals, are working in-person to support students in schools throughout Michigan in cities with infection rates near or higher than Detroit’s current infection rate.

"DPSCD is revisiting the 5% infection rate because the threshold is too low considering access to the vaccine and better understanding of the science connected to mitigating COVID-19 spread and exposure through strategies such as mask-wearing, social distancing, cleaning, hand-washing and COVID testing," Wilson said.

The DFP agreed to require its members to work in person throughout the school year, Wilson said, because the union believed they were needed to support the students whose families found it necessary and safe to send their children to school.

"The district is deeply appreciative and recognizes the fact that it has been paraprofessionals and other school support staff who have allowed all district school buildings to be open to families who cannot support their children at home through online learning," she said.

The district provided all paraprofessionals and school support staff with $3,000 in hazard pay to work in person, Wilson said. The district recently offered DFP additional hazard pay for fourth quarter in-person work, but the union has not accepted, according to Wilson.

Nearly 10,000 DPSCD families have sent children to the district's Learning Centers, which support staff have operated when teachers have chosen to work online, she said.

DPSCD has nearly 20,000 families that have asked for in-person learning, but only 1,000 families were receiving those sessions as of last month.

Wilson said individual employees, including paraprofessionals who have underlying health conditions, are encouraged and entitled to apply for federally protected leave.