Detroit public schools to require masks indoors, weekly testing for staff

Detroit Public Schools Community District students and staff will have to wear masks this fall regardless of their vaccination status and employees will have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, according to a return to school plan adopted Tuesday by the school board. 

Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti detailed the protocols Wednesday as well as the district's spending plan for $1.2 billion in federal COVID aid. With the school board's formal adoption of the plan, Vitti said, there's "more clarity on what the return looks like."

Vitti told the virtual audience of about 100 people that he will spend this week and next on a series of engagement sessions on expectations for the fall. District principals will run the same type of sessions with staff and students to break down the return policies including temperature checks, cafeteria rules and other COVID-19 protocols.

Detroit Public Schools Community District students and staff will have to wear masks this fall regardless of their vaccination status and employees will have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, according to a return to school plan adopted Tuesday by the school board. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made the announcement Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

“We are going to continue to rely on a masking policy for vaccinated and unvaccinated students because we are seeing a rise in COVID,” Vitti said Tuesday. “We have always been more stringent, more cautious when it comes to COVID because our community was devastated by COVID … we have to continue to be more cautious, more stringent and abide by CDC and state guidelines, even though they are only recommended.”

The state's largest district adopted its plan one day after the Michigan Board of Education voted in favor of a resolution supporting independence for local districts to make "scientifically informed decisions" including on "mandates for universal masking" at all school facilities and events for students, teachers and visitors regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration last week endorsed a recommendation from the state health department for universal masking in K-12 school buildings, saying it will help increase the amount of in-person learning.  

School districts can design their own policies unless Whitmer issues another epidemic order, which she said on July 27 that she has no plans to do.

Vitti said Wednesday the district will continue with weekly COVID-19 testing, which he noted began in the spring.

Detroit, Vitti said, is one of few districts that will require testing for teachers.

The testing happens at school sites or at the central office. Contractors facilitate the process, not employees, and it’s a saliva test, not a nasal swab, Vitti added.

The district also strongly urges that students in prekindergarten through 12th grade take the tests, based on how hard-hit the city was by the virus. Detroit, where about 41% of people 12 or older have at least one shot of vaccine, has had 52,668 cases of the coronavirus and 2,306 residents have died from COVID-19.

The district's infection rate currently is below 1%, which is lower than the state and city averages. Over 70% of the district's staff is vaccinated, Vitti said. 

Vitti also broke down how the district will allocate its pandemic aid. The funding, he said, will help with recovery efforts to cope with learning loss and to address transportation challenges and repairs for aging school buildings. 

In 2018, Livonia-based OHM Advisors estimated it would cost $500 million to address inoperable boilers, corroded plumbing fixtures, missing ceiling tiles in classrooms, exterior walls with cracks, roof leaks and a host of other problems.

The district lost 2,700 students since the pandemic started in March 2020. 

Vitti said the district will have smaller classes this fall and is offering a separate virtual school option for families. Teachers, however, will focus on in-person learning. 

The final approval comes about two weeks after the district reached an agreement with its teachers union for reopening schools amid the ongoing pandemic. Beyond smaller class sizes and the separate district-operated virtual school, the agreement includes up to $2,000 in staff hazard pay.

Vitti said for grades K-2 the standard class size is 25 and the district is targeting for 22; for grades third through fifth the standard is 30 and being targeted for 25; grades 6-8 they typically have 35 and will aim for 27; and for grades 9-12 they will target 30 students as opposed to 35 students. 

According to the district, it obtained and installed last year temperature check kiosks for each of its schools. The kiosks are touchless and will alert officials about staff or students with temperatures greater than 100.4 degrees. Anyone with temperatures higher than that will be sent home.

In addition, Detroit public schools will also require that students' desks must be at least 3 feet apart; respiratory etiquette and regular handwashing, and; contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine as well as dedicated nursing staff at all schools.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

cferretti@detroitnews.com