In-person classes in Detroit schools resume Monday under board plan

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

In-person learning resumes Monday at Detroit Public Schools Community District after school officials approved the use of a safety matrix to decide whether pauses on face-to-face learning at individual schools and districtwide are necessary.

Under a plan approved by the school board on Tuesday, data now considered for future school closures will include vaccination rates in the region, local testing data from weekly saliva testing in district locations and infection rates in the city and Metro Detroit.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, talks to kindergarten Camila Uribe, 5, on the first day of the new school year at Harms School in Detroit.

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According to the district, face-to-face learning is restarting Monday based on mid-May data and continued use of all safety protocols such as mask-wearing, social distancing, regular symptom checks and the district’s new weekly saliva testing program.

Assessments using the new matrix, which operates on a points-based system to assess safety and risks within buildings, begin on Wednesday, school officials said.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said as of Sunday, Detroit's seven-day average positivity rate for COVID-19 was 9.72%, Michigan's was 6.7% and the district had a 0.3% infection rate.

In the past, the district has relied primarily on the positive infection rate in Detroit when making decisions about when to suspend face-to-face activities. 

Now that vaccines have been widely available to adults for several months and school-aged children 12 and older are eligible, the district is changing its approach.

Vitti said if schools need to be closed, the district has decided on a phased closure strategy starting with high schools, moving to middle school and last, to elementary schools and learning centers.

"With this new matrix, we can look districtwide and at individual schools," Vitti said. "We reviewed it with unions and they were largely supportive."

Students have not been inside regular classrooms since March 26 after the district proactively moved to cancel in-person learning after spring break to give students and staff time to isolate. 

Vitti said in March that 19,000 students were not receiving the in-person learning they have requested because not enough teachers had agreed to teach in schools. 

Last month Vitti offered $500 and two sick days to teachers and many other employees who prove they've taken a COVID-19 vaccine. Teachers working inside schools receive $750 per quarter for hazard pay during the pandemic. 

Terrence Martin, president of the teacher's union, said on Tuesday more of the district's teachers are ready to return to teach in-person now that COVID-19 data is trending in the right direction and vaccinations are open to children 12 and up.

Educators in the Detroit Federation of Teachers have a choice whether they teach in person or remotely.

"There is a sense things are turning the corner relative to COVID," Martin said. "I expect them (the board) to vote yes on returning face-to-face ... A number of teachers are ready to return to school. It will be a welcome sight to return to face-to-face."

Martin said he could not say how many teachers want to return to in-person learning in May if the district reopens classrooms. He estimated about 17% returned in the fall and about 25% to 30% returned in February.

"It will be more than it was in the fall and more than back in February ... It will be closer to 35-40%," Martin said.

The district reopened its learning centers, which are supervised by paraeducators, aides, deans, substitutes, assistant principals and principals who support students who log into devices for online learning, on April 26. About 5,000 students attend learning centers.

The board is also considering approval of a $71 million contract with Ann Arbor-based LynxDX for on-site weekly saliva PCR COVID-19 testing for students and staff through June 30.

The district had started mandatory weekly saliva surveillance testing for all employees in April. The new program will provide testing at every school and district facility. Student testing will require parental consent, although it may be required for participation in certain activities, board officials said.

The last day of school for students is June 24.

Come back to for more on this developing story.