BAMN vows to stop summer school in Detroit, blocks buses

Detroit — They both want schools in the city to open safely for students and staff. But their similarities end there.

Leaders of the social justice organization By Any Means Necessary are vowing to shut down summer school in Detroit's public schools, alleging the district is unprepared to mitigate COVID-19 dangers and is putting students and staff at risk.

DPSCD opened buildings on Monday for the first day of summer school for about 500 students, marking the first time since mid-March that students entered schools for face-to-face instruction.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, says his district is following all federal and state guidelines to safely reopen school buildings this week and it's time for students to get back to learning and for adults to stop making excuses.

"The reopening plan has been vetted and discussed. Time is ticking," Vitti said Monday hours after BAMN demonstrators picketed in front of the district's westside bus terminal on Greenfield Road, blocking buses from leaving to pick up students who needed transportation to summer school.

Shanta Driver, national chairwoman of By Any Means Necessary and a civil rights attorney, said she will be filing a request for a preliminary injunction in the Court of Claims on Tuesday to stop the district from operating 23 school buildings for its first week of in-person summer school.

Driver said the bus drivers her organization spoke with on Monday said they were not given COVID-19 safety training for themselves or the children they were to pick up.

"They have no hand sanitizers on board. They were not told of social distance measures. They have no masks themselves and have no masks for students," Driver said.

Vitti, who visited several school buildings during the day on Monday, fired back at accusations that his district was unprepared. 

"Folks have not been in school for a long time, and there is a new normal, and adjustments need to be made," Vitti said Monday afternoon. "As for the safety commitment we made, our employees being COVID tested, student temperatures taken, a checklist of symptoms reviewed, social distancing, wearing a mask. Those things happened today."

DPSCD's back to school reopening plan is aligned with CDC guidance, recommendations from the governor's Return to Learn Council's Roadmap and national teacher's union guidance, Vitti said.

"We released a plan and had engagement with DFT (teacher's union), and it's time to get off the sidelines. People have to start learning," Vitti said. "If we don’t start to problem-solve, our district may not survive into the future."

Demonstrators caused 70 medically fragile students to miss school on Monday, Vitti said.

"The protesters' concern about children's safety is understandable and legitimate. There is natural fear about COVID and what it looks like," he said.

Kenshawn Siebert said he will not return to work as a contract DPSCD bus driver until safety measures are in place for himself and students on the bus. Siebert reported for work Monday with his own mask but was not provided training for COVID-19 safety measures, masks for students or sanitizers for riders.

Siebert, who works for Trinity Transportation/National Express, said he was not tested for COVID-19 before attempting to drive the school bus Monday and was not asked to seek a test on his own before reporting for work.

"My company has nothing in place for the safety of the students. None of us have been tested for COVID and they are starting the school bus system," Siebert said. "They are not prepared for it, and there is nothing in place to keep the drivers safe or students safe."

Teachers have contacted BAMN, Driver said, saying they were told by the district if they see a sick student, they are to remove him or her from the classroom, yet they are not being told where to place that student.

"Teachers have been given 10-minute video to watch on how to deal with reopening schools. That is so inadequate," Driver said. "It's so dangerous, and it's so irresponsible. We want to prevent them from opening schools until they can show it is something that can do safely."

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said reports from teachers inside the schools on Monday were mixed.

"There are teachers who are saying the district wasn’t ready for summer school," Martin said. "I have heard a lack of supplies, there are very few children who are registered. I haven't heard yet of a lack of PPE (personal protection equipment)."

Martin said 200 teachers applied and agreed to teach summer school, but it was unclear Monday afternoon how many had shown up for work. 

The district needs to do more reassure families it is safe to reopen schools, Martin said, and have families and teachers at the table when it comes to forming a return-to-school plan.

"The district has to give the public and staff a sense of assurance that people are going to be safe," Martin said. "That didn’t happen. There were parents and teachers who were extremely apprehensive about walking into a building."

As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs in the state, Martin said, there are major concerns by teachers on what will happen in the fall.

"There is a lack of trust that entities are going to do everything to keep teachers safe," Martin said.

On Monday, Vitti posted on Twitter a photograph of students inside a classroom wearing masks and sitting at desks that were spaced out.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti posted this photo on his Twitter account with the following caption:  "DPSCD serving 500 students face to face today. Thank you to all of our employees who made this happen for our students and families. Good to see students in schools this morning."

"DPSCD serving 500 students face to face today. Thank you to all of our employees who made this happen for our students and families. Good to see students in schools this morning," Vitti said on Twitter.

According to the district's website, students can choose between in-person classes or virtual classes for summer learning. 

Precautions the district said it will take include the requirement of masks for students and teachers, self-assessments and temperature checks for everyone who enters the buildings, and negative COVID-19 test results needed to be submitted by all adults working in summer schools. 

The district is also requiring a ratio of 10-15 students per 1 adult for each classroom. 

Summer classes are scheduled for four hours on Monday through Thursday. The summer semester will end on Aug. 6. The district has said that summer learning is on a voluntary basis for students and teachers.

On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist echoed recent statements by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying schools won't reopen in the fall if coronavirus cases have not been controlled. 

"The politicization of schools during the coronavirus, it really disgusts me. I mean as a parent of twin 6-year-olds who will be entering the second grade in the fall, I want my kids to be safe, I want every child in the state of Michigan, and frankly, the country to be safe," Gilchrist said.

Monday's bus demonstration, which started at 5 a.m. and lasted until 9 a.m., was organized with By Any Means Necessary, an organization that has held other recent protests. 

"There's a reason they're only opening these schools in Detroit and Detroit has had the worst of COVID-19," said Kate Stenvig, one of the BAMN organizers. "We're not going to allow our kids to be guinea pigs in this experiment."

Along with forming a picket line in front of the two exit driveways at the terminal, protesters dug up plants and tree branches and placed them as a barricade in front of the open gates. 

Demonstrators keep school buses from leaving the Detroit Public Schools West Side Bus Terminal, in Detroit on Monday, July 13, 2020.

BAMN organizers said no buses left the terminal during the protest and at least two school bus drivers publicly quit during the demonstration, saying it was on Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Vitti.

"We've made so many sacrifices as teachers, to ask us to sacrifice our lives and even our children that we love and care about, it's just not right. We have to draw the line somewhere," said Tracy Brown, a teacher at Mackenzie Elementary and Middle School.

Around 100 people came out for the protest, and at one point, about 10 city police and school police vehicles were present. 

"I'm not going back until this pandemic is defeated. There is no safe way to return to school while this virus is spreading uncontained," said Benjamin Royal, a teacher at Maybury Elementary School in Detroit.

"I'm not going to risk my life, and I'm not going to help create a situation where my students would have to risk their lives."