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Detroit teen to represent students on gov's return-to-school council

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

At 17, Dominic Gonzales has been tasked with a big job: representing all 1.5 million K-12 students on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to Learn Council.

Gonzales, a high school senior at the Academy of the Americas in Detroit, says his role as the sole student representative on the council is to provide the body with the student's view of returning to school this fall after weathering nearly three months of online learning at home.

Dominic Gonzales of Lincoln Park is the student representative on Gov. Whitmer's Return to Learn Council. Gonzales, is the only student and will represent all 1.5 million students in the state as official decide the best way to return to school this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"The council is all coming together to make school safer when we return, and minimize the spread of the virus and make school a place for us to attend every day," said Gonzales, who works part time and is a member of student council at his school in Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The governor-appointed Return to Learn Advisory Council is working to develop guidelines for returning to school. Whitmer noted the safety precautions for schools could include smaller class sizes.

Whitmer said she expects to announce by the end of the month a plan to restart in-person instruction in schools throughout the state. It is likely to vary by region.

Gonzales said the council will work on issues from June to December and so far has had meetings via Zoom and phone calls. Its work is confidential, he said.

Gonzales, who works at McDonald's and is part of the district's dual enrollment program that allows him to attend Wayne County Community College District during high school, said he was not expecting to be selected for the council and was thrilled when he was notified by the district.

“It feels good to put myself out there and help others when everything is so uncertain,” he said. "They are very interested in what I have to say at the meeting. I can participate and be a huge voice in this along with the Legislature and health officials."

Whitmer's "Return to School Roadmap" will address health and safety requirements with which schools must comply as well as potential differences depending on region and coronavirus activity.

Gonzales said he knows some families are uncertain about sending their children back to school.

“It’s the fear of contracting the virus and getting sick," Gonzales said. "It is something they do not want to experience. And they want to attend school without that worry. I've seen what (COVID-19) can do. I had a former teacher who contracted (it). It's scary.”

Gonzales said it was at times challenging; at other times, he enjoyed the leniency of doing schoolwork at home since mid-March.

"It is difficult without your teacher in front of you when you don’t understand the lesson," Gonzales said. "When you are at home in your own environment, it's been a fair experience. Personally, I prefer in-person instruction."

Gonzales had his own laptop to use but had an internet box from the district for consistent Wi-Fi access. He said his teachers were accessible every day.

Gonzales said some students are virtual learners and some are not. Friends and classmates told him they also faced difficulties at home doing schoolwork and would prefer to learn in school with a teacher.

At least 300,000 students in Michigan lack internet access or a computer at home while they are shut out of schools during the pandemic, according to a survey by Michigan school officials.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District announced this spring a $23 million plan for Detroit's 51,000-student district that give families computer tablets and internet access.

At the announcement in April, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the initiative will aid 90% of the district's students who have not been able to consistently access curriculum from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Every student should have accessibility to the internet and have a device to talk to their teachers and get the help they need. It should be a priority," Gonzales said.

Academy of the Americas principal Nicholas Brown said he has known Gonzales for nearly five years and described him as a hard worker, focused on education and who who takes on activities outside the classroom, like being an assistant football coach for middle school students.

"He is intrinsically motivated. He always seeks out advice from me and other staff," Brown said. "There is something in him that connects with other people. We are proud and also we feel like the student voice is in good hands."

jchambers@detroitnews.com