Detroit faith, education leaders urge vaccinations, return to in-person learning

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

In every Detroit neighborhood, there is a church and there is a school.

Those two anchors of the community united Thursday in a campaign to bring more students and teachers back into classrooms at Detroit Public Schools Community District this fall and to encourage everyone to put fear aside and get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Inside the Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, faith leadership and education officials issued a call to action to the Detroit community to bring their children back to school for in-person learning and to urge teachers to get vaccinated and return to face-to-face teaching after a school year full of disruptions and mostly online learning.

In a district that had 49,000 students before the pandemic, only about 8,000 are now learning inside schools. Of those, 7,000 attend learning centers across the district where school staff support them with virtual learning. The remaining 1,000 attend school in a classroom and receive 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 are in a virtual learning program that keeps them at home. 

Only about 500 of the district's 3,000 teachers have returned to classrooms to teach in-person. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District parent Sharene Nathan addresses members of the media and faith and education leaders during a press conference on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district has done everything it can to meet children, families and staff where they are during the pandemic, providing online learning, in-person learning or learning centers as well as food, mental health support and technology for every student.

With the vaccine available to students 12 and up and the district offering a $500 incentive to teachers who get one, it is time for everyone to return to school where in-person learning provides the best opportunities for future success, Vitti said.

"Today is about announcing all of us coming together to bring all of our students back," Vitti said. "Now Detroit, DPS and DPSCD have overcome a legacy of poverty, a legacy of racial injustice and now we are going to overcome COVID."

The district resumed face-to-face learning on Monday after closing schools after its early April spring break to avoid the spread of COVID-19. During the school year the district has moved in and out of in-person and remote-only learning due to the pandemic and spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Bishop Charles Ellis of Greater Grace Temple said the coronavirus has wiped out lives, hopes and dreams with no ability to fight back. The vaccine has changed that, he said.

"But now we are not in that position any longer. We have the ability to fight back for the first time," Ellis said. 

The Rev. Steve Bland, president of the Council of Baptist Pastors in Detroit, said he has been sensitive to the cries and concerns of parents and teachers about the safety of in-person learning since the start of the pandemic.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses members of the media and faith and education leaders during a press conference on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

"We too have had to make painful, yet necessary decisions about when to reopen our churches for our parishioners to worship," Bland said. "Given the safety protocols DPSCD has followed throughout this school year, we believe the time is right to move forward with in-person learning and encourage our communities to get vaccinated."

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, attended the event and said getting vaccinated is critical to the full return of school. DFT has about 4,000 members including social workers, counselors and nurses.

"It allows us to safely return to schools," Martin said. "We want educators and the school community to be safe and protected from COVID-19. That means get vaccinated."

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.