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20-student cap among terms of DPSCD, union agreement to resume school in Detroit

Detroit — Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state's largest school district, and its teachers union have come to terms on the reopening of schools for face-to-face learning in the year ahead, the two sides announced Friday.

A four-page Letter of Agreement sets the terms for return, including a limit of 20 students per class, and could prevent the strike Detroit's teachers voted to authorize just last week.

The 2020-21 school year will begin on Sept. 8 — the day after Labor Day. DPSCD has some 51,000 students.

Last week:Detroit teachers authorize strike over safety fears

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of DPSCD, said Friday the agreement signals that the district and teachers' union collectively own the reopening of schools to best serve students and families while ensuring the safety of employees.

"I think (the agreement) gives everyone the confidence we are working together to meet children and parents as far as where they are at educationally in this pandemic," Vitti said. "The district was out there articulating what we wanted to do. There was a sense we were doing that without teachers and employees. This letter of agreement shows we sat down and comprised and owned the reopening plan."

The Detroit Federation of Teachers will be allowed to require walk-throughs of school facilities alongside DPSCD officials. If problems are discovered, they are to be brought to that building's principal. The principal will be tasked with fixing them "immediately," the letter says. 

Teachers will be given the choice whether to work remotely or face-to-face, the agreement says. What the teacher chooses will stay in effect through Nov. 11, or nine weeks into the fall semester, when it will be revisited.

Under the plan, teachers will each receive a $750 bonus per marking period this year, within two weeks of the end of each marking period. With four marking periods, that's a $3,000 bonus.

Terrence Martin, DFT president, said the agreement establishes safety protoccols and procedures that are going to help to ensure the safety of students and staff.

"These measures move us in the right direction to overcome this virus," Martin said.

Talks with the district intensified after teachers authorized a safety strike on Aug. 19, giving the DFT executive board the authority to launch a walkout at a later date if negotiations broke down with the district.

“The pressure is not over," Martin said. "We still have the vote there. It's not our goal to utilize it. We have the option to do that.”

Martin said about 85% of teachers have elected to teach remotely, while the remainder have agreed to teach face-to-face in schools.

Vitti said about 80% of students have enrolled for online learning at home, with the rest choosing to attend school in person.

Vitti said all 108 school buildings will be open for the start of classes.

Schools will have a combination of face-to-face learners in classrooms with teachers and other students coming in to learn online using district resources.

All school will operate as learning centers, Vitti said, which gives students the opportunity to eat breakfast and lunch and receive support from administrators for school work.

Under the agreement, professional development sessions, which are held throughout the year to keep teachers' skills up to date, will all be conducted remotely in 2020-21.

Teachers who teach in-person and contract the coronavirus while working will be entitled to take medical leave until cleared to return to work. A teacher who is asymptomatic and sent home to quarantine must convert to remote instruction "to ensure continuity of student learning," the agreement says.

The district and its teachers will form a committee on school reopening that will meet weekly to discuss local COVID-19 data and safety issues that arise as part of the plan. The agreement expires June 30, 2021.

Face-to-face learning has been controversial in Detroit. In July, activists with the group By Any Means Necessary blocked the passage of school buses with their bodies and vehicles, slowing their path to pick up summer school students. 

July:Protesters impede buses at Detroit terminal in effort to hinder summer school

In a statement Friday, Benjamin Royal, a DPSCD teacher and member of BAMN and Equal Opportunity Now — which oppose reopening on safety grounds — said that "the virus doesn't care what agreement was signed."

There had been a car caravan scheduled Friday to protest any resumption of face-to-face learning. It was canceled due to the heavy rains, organizers said, not the signing of the return-to-work agreement.

"This deal does not change the fact that COVID-19 maims and kills people," Royal's statement continued. "It does not change the facts that Detroit is the largest majority black city in the country and we are facing a pandemic that disproportionately kills black people.

"Schools that open will become vectors of disease spread and the spread won’t be limited to the schools — it will affect the entire community. Reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic will result in dead children and dead teachers."

Gavin Buckley, a member of the teachers union and a member of the Michigan Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or MI-CORE, said in a statement, "We are on the side of the science, and our members say that it simply is not safe for in-person learning." 

"We understand the desire to return to normal, and we miss our students too, but it is not worth sacrificing staff, students or families' lives," Buckley continued. "We believe this agreement does not go nearly far enough toward protecting our communities."

Detroit schools must provide COVID-19 testing to students who want it free-of-charge to those students, the letter says. Students cannot be required to take the tests; parental consent must be given first.

Teachers who have a child-care need arise from choices made by their child's school or day care are not only allowed to bring their children to class with them, but also to "provide instruction and educational supports" to their child.

Among the safety protocols for the year ahead are:

  • Daily symptom and temperature checks
  • Desks six feet apart
  • Masks
  • Socially-distanced seating on school buses
  • Widespread availability of hand sanitizer

The district says it has engaged in nearly two-dozen listening and planning sessions with the community. It has obtained "millions of dollars" in personal protective equipment.

Many schools and districts within Michigan have opted for remote learning for at least part of the year.

Separately, Dr. Vitti penned a letter Friday to Mark Uyl, director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, urging the MHSAA to revisit its decision to cancel the fall football season. Several Detroit football coaches co-signed the letter, including Thomas Wilcher, head coach of Cass Tech. 

"If the MHSAA does not move forward with playing this fall then please put in writing, to all high school athletic directors and coaches, who can share with their players, why the season was moved to the spring and what conditions must exist to play in the spring," Vitti wrote. "We request the same of the Governor (Gretchen Whitmer) if she prohibits football from being played in the fall."