Editorial: If it's safe, get students in school

The Detroit News

With the threat of COVID-19, schools already knew they’d be facing unprecedented challenges this fall. But as we’ve seen in Detroit this week, school district leaders must brace for other wrenches thrown at them, too, especially if they attempt face-to-face instruction. 

The Detroit Public Schools Community District has tried to offer in-person summer school — which is voluntary for students and teachers — and is complying with federal and state safety guidelines, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. 

Around 650 students had enrolled, although all aren’t attending. There is also an online option. 

But the district has already faced legal challenges, as well as protests that have sought to quash these efforts.

The lawsuit, brought by the “social justice” group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), along with some teachers, parents and students, attempted to shut down school buildings. 

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

More:Judge orders testing of Detroit summer school students for COVID-19 in five days

In response, a federal judge ordered all DPSCD summer school students to be tested for COVID-19. Two of 274 students tested were positive, and the district has notified the students and their families, as well as impacted staff.

The Detroit Health Department, which helped administer the tests, says the infection rate is low and does “not suggest school spread.”

Protesters gather Thursday outside a Detroit schools bus terminal to protest in-person summer school classes for Detroit Public Schools Community District students.

Don’t expect that to quell the naysayers. For instance, a group of protesters — organized by BAMN — on Thursday went so far as to park their cars, blocking school buses from getting out. 

If in-person schooling is not satisfactory, then what is the answer? 

Detroit of all districts would benefit from getting kids back in the classroom. The online experiment was not a success in most districts in Michigan, and Detroit students likely suffered the most, without adequate access to computers and the internet. And many low-income parents have had to continue working outside the home during the pandemic. 

It’s hard to see how that’s a better situation for these children, who have consistently had the lowest reading and math test scores in the country. 

More:Finley: School restart should be local choice

Vitti has worked hard to revamp the curriculum, and students are starting to make progress. This is not the time to halt learning altogether.

That doesn’t mean any student or teacher should be put in harm’s way. DPSCD, and other districts, are seeking to create frameworks that will be as safe as possible for all involved. 

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

And each district must decide what is safest for its community. 

But where possible, some inclusion of in-person learning is the best way to engage students. 

The American Federation of Teachers, whose local affiliate organizes Detroit teachers, has been vocal about getting teachers to push back against reopening plans.  

AFT President Randi Weingarten in April told teachers to “scream bloody murder” if they weren’t satisfied with safety requirements. 

Vitti has said he’s trying to find a balance between upholding safety and making sure Detroit children are going to learn. That should be the goal for all districts.