COVID-19 hard-hit town in Detroit reopens classrooms spark demonstrations

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DETROIT – The fury surrounding the start of summer school in Detroit this week provides a glimpse of the emotional battles that could strike many other communities this fall.

The city’s main public school district has made the unusual decision to open classrooms for in-person summer learning starting Monday in hopes of helping children catch up four months later. the forced closure of schools by the coronavirus.

While the district says it has taken safety precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and stressed that no student or teacher is required to participate in face-to-face instruction, the first two days of classes have been were met with protests. Activists prevented school buses from leaving a bus depot. Civil rights lawyer, who used the word “genocide” to describe the effect of the district’s decision because the student population is 96% black or Latin American, says she plans to seek a injunction to close schools. The head of the city’s teachers’ union called the summer courses in person “a mind-boggling decision.” And some parents have expressed serious concerns about the safety of their children.

“I’m scared,” said Kim Martin, 50, who was picking up his eighth-grade student Allyn from his summer school at the Brenda Scott Academy on the east side of Detroit on Monday. “I don’t want my son to get sick. He’s an asthmatic. ”

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Across the country, many districts are involved in what has become a highly politicized debate over reopening schools, with President Donald Trump threatening to cut funding for schools that do not offer in-person education. On Monday, two of the country’s largest districts – Los Angeles and San Diego – said they would not offer face-to-face instruction when they reopen for the new school year due to the increased number of cases of COVID-19 in California.

Detroit, where about 500 students attended classes in 23 schools on Monday, is not the only city to hold summer courses in person. Certain districts, however, notably in Connecticut and Iowa, have already had to close due to confirmed or suspected cases of the virus.

Evidence suggests that children are not as susceptible to the virus as adults, but some children have died, including a 5-year-old girl in Detroit. Teachers also raised concerns about the dangers they face when returning to work.

But Detroit school principal Nikolai Vitti said city children, the vast majority of whom are classified as economically disadvantaged by the state and have test results showing they are far behind their peers on the school plan, can’t afford to miss a lot more school.

“Our children need us,” he said. “People have to get out of the sidelines and go out there and figure out what the new standard looks like with COVID-19 school.”

He dismissed critics who say the district should have stuck to online education, both because many children in Detroit don’t have a computer – a major philanthropic effort announced in April to distribute tablets or computers for every Detroit student have so far only reached high school students – and because the needs of students cannot be fully met online.

“Many children will not be able to stay focused and engaged and receive the support they need academically and socially, emotionally,” he said.

COVID-19 destroyed Detroit, where 1,461 people have died from the virus since March. The school district has lost about 10 staff, said Vitti, and he believes that almost all of the students and staff have been affected by the virus.

While some say it’s another reason to keep classrooms closed, Vitti argues that it’s reason to open them to students whose parents feel comfortable with the idea.

“We are overcoming the pain these children and their families have,” he said.

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The district is taking safety precautions, including limiting class sizes to 15 students, checking the temperature of all students and staff, and cleaning all schools daily, said Vitti. Teachers tested for the virus, but students failed – partly because some parents said they didn’t want their children tested and partly because the district does not have access enough tests that could quickly yield a result, he said. .

A teacher in a class of socially distant students on the first day of summer school in Detroit on Monday. @Dr_Vitti via Twitter

He added that the plan had been developed in a series of virtual meetings with teachers, students, parents and district staff and had been presented at two school board meetings.

Some parents said they were comfortable with the district measures.

“Everyone is wearing their mask,” said Shallena Cummings, 22, who sends her daughter Zarha, 6, to summer school to Brenda Scott so that she is better prepared for the first year. “My child got a hand sanitizer and everything. “

Cummings had some reservations when she saw that the number of cases in Michigan had started to climb again after going down from its peak in April.

“Honestly, I was about to change my mind,” she said. “But I think, OK, she had to go back to school at some point. I had to pass it. “

Martin, however, remains concerned. Her uncle and a cousin died from COVID-19. She suffers from diabetes and while her son goes to summer school, she worries about his health, as well as the possibility that he can bring the virus home.

But Allyn must pass an English course to be able to attend high school, and online courses are not an option since he does not have a computer at home, she said.

Terrence Martin, who heads the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union, said he saw no need to put students or staff at risk. He said the district should instead focus on strengthening online education, in case schools cannot open in the fall.

“There has been an increase recently in the state. It is just not wise, “he said. “I certainly understand the district’s response to parents who said,” We want our children to have an opportunity and we don’t want them to enter the next school year with a deficit. “” But he thinks online courses would be safer.

Martin signed a letter of agreement with the district regarding summer school after hearing from teachers who wanted summer school positions. He negotiated wages and working conditions, ensuring that the jobs would be voluntary.

So far, he said, he hasn’t heard any major safety complaints from his members, but he says he will be watching closely to see what’s going on – and what lessons can be learned for fall.

Civil rights lawyer Shanta Driver, national president of activist organization By Any Means Necessary, who led protests at the bus depot on Monday and Tuesday, said she plans to file a discrimination claim on behalf of the children from Detroit before the state court claims on Tuesday against district and state officials and planned to seek an injunction to force the district to close the summer school.

Workers sit amid dozens of inactive school buses after protesters blocked the entrances to Detroit’s public schools’ West Side bus station on the first day of summer school on Monday. David Guralnick / The Detroit News via AP

“We can predict that some young people will be infected with the virus this summer because of this reopening, and everyone deserves to be protected from it,” she said.

She asked why Detroit was opening schools for face-to-face education when most other districts in the state offer summer courses only online, if at all. She compared the decision to the infamous Tuskegee study, which began in the 1930s and left hundreds of African American men with syphilis untreated for decades, saying that she thought Detroit students were also subject to a dangerous public health experiment.

“We don’t need another racist attack on Detroit or for Detroit to be used this summer as an experiment in Tuskegee to determine if schools can reopen in the fall or not.” “

Vitti said he was not concerned about the lawsuits. “We think we are implementing all of the federal and state requirements for face-to-face education,” he said. “We have gone beyond protocols and security requirements and we will be well prepared” to defend them in court, he said. A spokesman for the State Education Department declined to comment on the threat of the lawsuit.

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The driver questioned the security measures in the neighborhood. She linked a reporter to a school bus driver, Kenshawn Siebert, who says he showed up to work at the depot where Driver protested on Monday to find that there was no mask or disinfectant for hands for buses.

Siebert, who has been driving a school bus to the city for five years, told NBC News that he had received no training on how to protect the children on his bus. It has not been tested for the virus. And after losing four friends to COVID-19 in the past few months, he said he refused to drive his route on Monday and has no plans to return.

“I don’t want to see my child under a fan,” said Siebert, a father of four, “and I don’t want to see someone else’s child with a fan. “

Edward Flavin, a spokesperson for National Express and Trinity Transportation, where Siebert worked, said that all drivers were trained and that students should wear masks and use hand sanitizer on buses.

“The safety, health and well-being of our passengers and employees will remain our number one priority,” he said.

Driver has been involved in civil rights and immigration issues for years, but said the decision to open schools this summer “is the closest thing to my life I have seen that smacks of genocide.” . “

The reopening, she said, “is horrible and must be stopped”.

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