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As in-person classes resume for Detroit students, Vitti hopes enrollment climbs

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — It is the first day of school in Detroit public schools and per tradition, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti walks through one of the district's schools to greet staff and say hello to school children.

Vitti learned from sixth-grade students in teacher Kimberly Laycock's class that some were excited to be back to see teachers again and others were happy to see friends.

From left, Priest Elementary-Middle School Principal Justin Houser and Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti talk to a class of sixth-graders during the first day of classes on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.

Vitti, wearing a tailored suit and a face mask, pressed further.

"So who is excited not to do online learning anymore?" Vitti asked the class at Priest Elementary-Middle School in the Detroit Public School Community District. 

All 18 students – masked up – shot their hands into the air.

Last school year, a majority of the district's students stayed home and learned online.

On Tuesday, Vitti and district leaders were looking for signs that a majority of the district's 50,000 enrolled students were coming back. That's how many kids the district had enrolled pre-pandemic.

The state's largest school district lost thousands of students during the 2020-21 school year, from those who left for other districts to those who simply never showed up for school. Vitti said enrollment dropped to 48,000 in the spring but last fall the district searched for 8,000 missing students, learning some had enrolled in other districts and others were unreachable.

Vitti said on Tuesday there are still questions about how many students in kindergarten, first-grade and ninth-grade – the grades where enrollment losses were the largest – are coming back this fall.

The district will watch the numbers this week – hoping to see 2,000 additional students from those three grades – and begin home visits to ferret out reasons why children are not in school, Vitti said.

"We have them in the system. The big question is when will they arrive?" Vitti said.

About 2,500 students have enrolled in the district's virtual learning school, which is a separate program from in-person learning with its own set of principals and teachers.

"We anticipate that number increasing over the next couple of weeks," Vitti said of the virtual school, without providing an estimate.

Vitti said on Tuesday all teachers were back this year. Last school year, only about 500 teachers taught in person. This fall the district has about 4,000 teachers on staff, including Tonette Hardison at Priest.

Inside Hardison's kindergarten classes, excited youngsters moved about their seats with colorful backpacks decorated with Super Mario or Spiderman or Paw Patrol hung on their chairs.

Hardison said she spent the morning teaching the children songs, counting numbers, saying letters and identifying shapes.

Sixth-grader Gamilah Nasser, 11, listens to superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti during his visit to her class on the first day of classes at Priest Elementary-Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.

"Just a general preview of things that should have been done in preschool, but if not, that is where we will start," Hardison said. 

"I have a few energetic ones. They all seem ready to get started," she said.

The district, which is already dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak among football players at Detroit's Renaissance High School, is testing staff and students weekly for the virus.

Vaccination rates in the city of Detroit – which represent all children in the city including DPSCD, charter school students and those who attend school outside the city – are low, at 13.6% for kids ages 12-15 and 21% for ages 16-19. About 70% of Detroit school staff are vaccinated.

Vitti said if someone tests positive or is a close contact of someone who has COVID-19, the student will learn from home during their quarantine on a new "blended learning" program. That includes a laptop with internet access and students will stay assigned to their teacher, not the virtual school's learning program.

Teachers receive extra pay – up to $2,000 a year – for teaching students at home on quarantine as well as their in-person class.

"We think that is a more efficient way to keep learning moving forward," Vitti said. "It's just too hard for teachers to do both in-person and online."

All students learning in the virtual school already have laptops with internet, Vitti said.

In the months to come, Vitti said the district is purchasing new laptops with hot spots for all students who are attending in-person. Those purchases are being made through COVID-19 relief funding.

"There should be no reason why a student shouldn't be able to learn (when) at home," Vitti said.