Detroit schools going remote on Fridays next month, Vitti says

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Students in Detroit public schools will be learning from home on Fridays starting next month after the district's top official announced the shift to remote learning was needed to address mental health issues and provide more time for cleaning buildings amid rising COVID-19 cases.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, said Wednesday that he listened and reflected on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students and families regarding the need for mental health relief and time to more thoroughly clean schools as the pandemic surges again.

At least six of the district's schools have experienced outbreaks this month, including Mumford High, Central High and Bates Academy. According to the district's COVID reporting page, it had 367 cases of students and staff last week and 857 students and 79 staff were quarantined.

"I have decided to shift districtwide instruction on December 3rd, December 10th, and December 17th (all Fridays) to online learning," Vitti said in a statement to the district. "We will follow the regular school schedule and time on these online learning days." 

Vitti said it was important for attendance districtwide to be at 75% or higher on the three remote days so the district does not lose out on state funding. If that is not done, Vitti said "online learning days will not be a viable option for us the rest of the school year."

All school-based and central office staff, except those whose work cannot be completed from home, will work remotely on the three days, he said. Administrators will have the discretion to require specific staff to come into work, he said.

All public safety, facility, school nutrition and warehouse staff, van drivers and one administrator from each school must report to work on those days, Vitti said.

The district will provide breakfast and lunch meals on Thursdays that month and students will have their devices, a laptop loaner, or personal cell phone to join their classes, Vitti said. The district will provide internet access at no cost to students.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said Wednesday that the district listened to the pleas of burned-out teachers who advocated for one day to be shifted to remote learning to allow for deeper cleaning and time away for mental health recovery.

"Hopefully the rates of COVID change where we can resume five days of face-to-face instruction," he said. "For right now, it makes all the sense in the world considering the mental health and burnout for our folks."

Martin said the union saw issues with buildings not being properly cleaned, sometimes due to a lack of staff. He said he hopes to see a drop in COVID cases by mid- to late-December to assess if the day off from in-person classes is helping. He wants the arrangement to continue beyond December if cases remain high and teachers need it.

"If it's working, we should continue in January. We hope there is no need for that," he said.

DPSCD parent Bianca Neely was unaware of the change but said it was necessary to reduce the spread of the virus. Neely, who has three young children in the district, said she would support students taking more days to learn at home to reduce cases and the need for quarantines.

"My two youngest have been getting a lot of cases in their classes," Neely said of her second- and third-graders. "My second-grader had to stay home seven to 10 days because he sat near a child who had it. Once he went back, some other kid in his class had it. I'm tired of it."

Neely said the district needs to reduce class sizes to allow students to social distance. She says her children attend schools that have 25 or more students in classes. She does not plan to get her children vaccinated.

"It's not going to clear up or anything if they can't social distance," she said.

In early November, Southfield Public Schools moved to remote learning on Fridays and is continuing virtual instruction on Fridays until Feb. 11, a result of staffing labor and supply-chain shortages. 

Jennifer Martin-Green, superintendent of the Southfield schools, said the district was unable to keep classroom buildings open five days a week.

"We're facing shortages across several areas including janitorial staff, food service, and especially in substitute teachers," she said.

jchambers@detroitnews.