Detroit public schools, teachers union reach deal on fall reopening plan

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit Public Schools Community District reached an agreement with its teachers union for reopening schools that includes smaller class sizes, a separate district-operated virtual school and up to $2,000 in staff hazard pay and another $2,000 if teachers work in a blended learning environment.

The agreement, announced Monday, between the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the district provides additional support for any union member who performs work in person and contracts COVID-19 or is asked to quarantine by paying sick-leave.

In the event a teacher is asked to quarantine and is asymptomatic, instruction will continue remotely to ensure continuity of student learning, the agreement says.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

The agreement "recognizes the need to return all DPSCD teachers and ancillary staff to the classroom and schools for in person teaching and learning while adhering to updated COVID-19 safety standards."

It also continues many of the protocols and systems implemented last year when the district opened schools, school officials said.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the agreement requires teachers to be in classrooms in buildings this fall, unlike last school year when they could opt to teach virtually at home.

"The agreement says they have to teach in person," Vitti said. "This gives the district, teachers and our families clarity that our teachers will be back in the buildings at full scale on the first day of school."

DFT has about 4,400 members including social workers, counselors and nurses. Last school year, only about 500 teachers returned to teach in person. This fall the district has about 4,000 teachers on staff.

Terrence Martin, president of the DFT, said he expects the majority of teachers to return to classrooms this fall. Officials say about 70% of school staff are vaccinated.

"It’s a couple of things: the letter of agreement, it's members knowing our students need us and our members are returning to what they love to do," Martin said. 

Martin said a key part of the agreement was lowering class sizes. According to the letter, class sizes for K-2 students move from 25 to 22 students; for grades 3-5 from 30 to 25; for grades 6-8 from 35 to 27; and for grades 9-12 from 35 to 30.

"We don’t want to walk back into classrooms of 40 and 50 students," Martin said. "We can't go back to those days."

As part of the agreement, the joint committee for schools reopening will continue to meet weekly to review reopening issues and review pandemic related data to inform any recommendations to leadership regarding the plan, school officials said.

In a district that had 49,000 students before the pandemic, only about 8,000 attended school in person in May. Of those, 7,000 attended learning centers across the district where school staff support them with virtual learning. The remaining 1,000 attended school in a classroom and received direct instruction from a teacher.

After experiencing a 2,700-student drop in enrollment during the pandemic, the district's other roughly 38,000 students were in a virtual learning program that kept them at home. 

In April, 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.

Vitti said the district did everything it could to meet children, families and staff where they were during the pandemic, providing online learning, in-person learning or learning centers as well as food, mental health support and technology for every student.

When the vaccine became available to students 12 and up, the district offered a $500 incentive to teachers who get one.