In Detroit Summer School, Temperature Checks and Health Questions Before Math and Reading
The staffer is wearing a white N95 mask. Milagra sports a rainbow-sequined version. The 7-year-old answers “no” again and again and then steps onto the sidewalk sticker that will keep her six feet from the boy who had just gone through the same drill. A few minutes later, the children are called in one by one, first to a long table with hand sanitizer, a bowl of extra surgical masks and a contactless thermometer for temperature checks. All get a prepacked breakfast, and another day of summer school officially begins.
Everyone in sight is masked and will remain so for the next four hours.
These protocols are part of the new routine at 23 public schools across Detroit, where more than 600 students are attending in-person classes for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted academics in March. As communities across the country grapple with how to proceed this fall, the efforts here could prove instructive for other districts, offering a glimpse at what educators and parents will have to do for students who return for face-to-face instruction.
Milagra’s mom, for one, is mainly reassured that she made the “best decision,” though Janet Martinez changed her mind several times before the session started on July 13 and even kept the little girl home on the first day because of community protests. Virtual learning this spring had been the source of nonstop frustration in their apartment, where Milagro’s older sister and her two sons also live. There was a single tablet for the children to use for online classes, with overlapping schedules complicating things further.
“She’s already happy,” Martinez said of her daughter.
Parents haven’t been the only ones second-guessing their decisions. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti admits that he had qualms during the final planning for the system’s hybrid model, which also offers students the option of virtual classes.
“Am I doing the right thing? Are we doing the right thing? Am I missing something?” said Vitti, who became superintendent in 2017. He didn’t want to brush off valid concerns. “I think in our community in particular, parents’ voices have been ignored. The community’s voices have been ignored.”
More than two weeks in, there’s no sign of any infection outbreaks on campuses. During a court hearing last week in a lawsuit seeking to stop in-person instruction, a judge ordered testing of all summer school students; the next day, the district and the Detroit Health Department deployed a rapid-testing operation and identified three positives among the 359 children who had their noses swabbed.
The district says it then carried out additional cleaning of the schools involved as well as the buses that served those locations. It also notified staff and the families of students who had been in close contact about their potential exposure. The three who tested positive for the novel coronavirus were asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Vitti’s efforts to reopen schools started in the spring, when Michigan was still under strict lockdown measures but appeared to be flattening its pandemic curve. As the virtual learning dragged on, concerns grew about how much students would suffer academically. “We all know that our kids are behind,” Vitti said in a recent interview, “but they’re going to be even more behind because of the shutdown.”
Many parents here rely on the school system for an array of services, too. Having their children back in class “allows them to be able to work,” explained Marquis Herring, a dean of students at Sampson-Webber Academy, which serves one of Michigan’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. “A lot of the parents . . . are what would be considered essential workers.”
Getting the classrooms ready involved considerable logistics into early July. Principals walked through their buildings to measure how many kids could fit in each class when seated six feet apart. The district has already rolled out its fall plans, which include regularly deep-cleaning facilities and identifying “high-touch surfaces,” stationing a nurse on every campus, redistributing students based on room capacity and carrying out wellness checks.
Just a few years ago, the ability of Detroit’s public schools to pull off this complex reopening would have been unthinkable. The district, under state management, was racked with controversy over the dilapidated conditions of many buildings, with accounts of rodent infestations, leaks and black mold. Even today, the community’s trust is tenuous.
Students continue to adjust to this summer’s protocols. For 12-year-old Naomi Delgado, the morning temperature checks are like scanning tickets to get into Disney World. “I was just worried about the mask because I have to wear [it] all day,” she said.
Many teachers remain leery, though 300 signed up to fill 180 summer school positions. When cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, were still low statewide, high school math teacher Michael Chrzan was excited about the prospect of returning in August. Now that transmission and infections are on the rise, he’s changed his mind.
“I don’t know too many safety things that the district could do that would make me say, ‘Oh, okay, even though the virus is flaring back up outside, I think I’m okay sitting in a school building for eight hours,’ ” said Chrzan, whose school uses a project-based style of learning that is not easy to do virtually.
Bernita Bradley, a parent advocate and community engagement manager in Detroit, still thinks the smarter route would have been to run all four weeks of the summer session online. Based on conversations with parents and health experts, she is increasingly worried about older students who might push the boundaries of social distancing once a full semester is underway.
“They are going to walk home in groups because that’s what they do. You’re not going to see a line of kids walking home six feet from one another,” she said.
Bradley commended Vitti and other administrators for being transparent about the process, but if the first weeks of classes are any indication, their planning will only go so far. Protesters have regularly tried to block school bus drivers from picking up children. One of the groups involved, the national By Any Means Necessary, is the organization behind the ongoing lawsuit.
Even more changes and challenges are likely ahead as summer school wraps up and the district looks toward the fall reopening. During a conference call on Tuesday, the Detroit Federation of Teachers released a list of demands because of the rising number of covid-19 cases in Michigan. Above all, it wants the district to switch from its hybrid approach to only virtual learning until the situation improves.
“The cases have gone up. That tells us right now that there are some grave concerns,” DFT President Terrence Martin said. “At this particular moment we believe it is unsafe for our students and our staff to start school in the fall.”
Martin made clear how teachers would respond: “If the members don’t feel that it’s safe, if the union leadership doesn’t feel that it’s safe, then we won’t show up.”
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