Bankole: Detroit teachers open up about pandemic impact

Bankole Thompson

Stories about the hardships of COVID-19 abound, but one story that has yet to be fully explored and appreciated is how the virus has altered the lives of public school teachers. The pandemic has significantly changed the working conditions of those who are entrusted with shaping the future of tomorrow’s leaders. That much deserves not only our attention, but also our admiration, especially after the nation recently paused to observe National Teacher Appreciation Week. 

The disruption caused by the virus is felt hard by the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Known for its epic battles for better teacher pay and better working conditions, DPSCD the largest school district in the state with a student-body of 51,000. For many educators, the pandemic is surreal.

“Though we are all stumbling through this new normal of teaching from home, those of us who are committed to kids in urban districts like Detroit are faced with more firmly entrenched barriers like poverty and lack of resources, student apathy related to trying to keep up with no step up in sight,” said Dorothea Williams-Arnold, a teacher at Cass Technical High School.

“In urban districts, the classroom environment is often the great equalizer; it is a sacred shared space where our kids can either stand out or blend in, if they want. They can more easily can be seen, felt, heard, maybe even counseled. It is the space where subtle signs of suffering or confusion are more easily accessed and addressed. Invisibility is not as profound or detrimental in these spaces. Connection is more palpable, less often interrupted. The pandemic has made vividly clear the importance of that safe, shared space where connection and healing through ideas is possible and necessary.”

Williams-Arnold, who’s been teaching for 14 years, noted that though Detroit has been able to pivot to a remote learning platform fairly quickly, “they still have a ways to go if the goal is to encourage more student buy in, if they want to narrow the gap between our kids and those in districts that expect student participation and hold students and parents accountable.”

She added, “This is the absolute biggest challenge that districts like Detroit must grapple with: how to strengthen their commitment to maintaining high standards and accountability while at the same time addressing the needs of struggling students. I believe there is room to do both, and this pandemic may have been the perfect opportunity for the district muster up the will.”

Michelle Davis, dean of culture at Davis Aerospace Technical High School with 23 years in public education, agrees that the pandemic has brought real issues to the forefront. “I do wellness check every week on the families and students, and we have families who are really suffering. Sometimes we are dealing with families who have no water or food in the house," Davis tells me.

Davis says despite the district establishing a support hotline to help students with issues, “there is still need for the human contact, and the school used to be the place for some of these students to escape emotional issues because we have counselors who give them validation and emotional support. They are missing that now, and it is a huge void.”

Nikolai Vitti

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said teachers have been dealing with the challenges of inequities before the arrival of COVID-19.

“Teachers immediately see the reality of economic gaps when they work with students in the classrooms and build a relationship with students," Vitti says. "I do not believe the pandemic has shed light on the disadvantages, they know it already.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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