Protect Our Public Schools: Experts Weigh In On Reopening Schools Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Protect Our Public Schools held a webinar last Wednesday exploring important concerns regarding the upcoming school year in relation to the Detroit Public Community District. The roundtable discussion featured Detroit experts to address COVID-19 worries of Detroiters concerned about DPCD students.

Many of the panelists featured at the event spoke passionately about student safety and premeditated racial discrimination.

“The community has expressed concern as to how it is and why it is, that the Grosse Pointe School District already said they’re going to shut down, but in the same vicinity right across the street, the Detroit Public Schools are opening and operating,” said LaMar Lemmons, former member of the Michigan State House of Representatives. “Schools provide vital services beyond mere education and it is extremely important that they do open, but if the billionaire sports entertainment enterprise owners and their millionaire players cannot protect themselves from COVID…how do we protect some of the least of these in the Detroit area?”

With some schools beginning to open in less than a month, many have raised concerns about the decision. Questions about the spread of the virus, it’s fatality rate and general safety protocols have been posed by worried Detroiters. Some have highlighted the disproportionate effects COVID-19 has on minorities.

Governor Whitmer signed an executive order recognizing racism as a public health crisis in Michigan. In addition to the directive, Whitmer also created the Black Leadership Advisory Council, a committee set to “act in an advisory capacity to the governor and develop, review, and recommend policies and actions designed to eradicate and prevent discrimination and racial inequity in Michigan.”

Dennis Denno, president of Denno Research and the host of the meeting, Dr. Eric Kessell, Wayne State University lecturer, Michigan State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, Dr. Jimmy Womack, former Democratic State Representative and former Detroit School Board President, participated in the webinar with Lemmons.

One panelist was appreciative of the governor’s “bold and important step,” but believed more can be done.

“Training alone won’t do it; we need benchmarks and policies that will help transform the outcomes for African Americans,” said Gay-Dagnogo. “We want to make sure that we follow that up with policies that can be measured because training alone without tangible ways to measure it will only be symbolic and I think it’s time to move beyond symbolism.”

Strong criticisms were given to the federal government and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, for efforts made by the White House. Gay-Dagnogo hoped to see a significant change in DeVos’ order of operations.

“We know that she is not astute to serve in that role [as Secretary of Education] and so the games that are being played right now is pitting virtual schools against traditional public schools,” said Gay-Dagnogo. “Betsy DeVos as well Trump, the puppet master, are playing games with the lives of people all over the country.”

Mention was also given to the intersection between focus placed on student safety and the importance of protecting school staff and faculty.

“The concern is probably greater for the adults and staff in the school [than the children],” said Dr. Womack. “We don’t know a lot about how this virus will affect our children, or how it’s currently affecting our children, but we do know that the adults who contract COVID-19 have a far greater chance of being sick and dying than younger people.”

Gay-Dagnogo urged viewers to remember the sometimes-fatal human domino effect viruses can have.

“There is no way to contain it. In the event someone who is asymptomatic does have it and transfers it, so having many people that live in homes together, that it’s not just a student that may not have a fatal experience, but it’s the teachers and it’s the custodians, it’s the lunch ladies, it’s the family at home,” said Gay-Dagnogo.” So, the contagion level of COVID and the fatality level that it’s had in the African American community, makes it a situation whereby we have to address it and not rush to just reopen schools, but make sure that the safety of both the children and the staff of all of our schools is primary.”

Panelists mirrored many of the concerns felt by community members asking tough, hypothetical questions about the upcoming school year.

“Here’s what I find so challenging. Although we understand that social distancing, wearing masks, cleaning surfaces is helpful, how do you keep children from exchanging masks? These are children,” said Womack.

Inner cities like Detroit have a unique set of circumstances in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The logistics if you are to reopen, assuming that you have the community transitions in place, those are going to be challenging and those are going to be expensive. So, the resources for the school districts are going to have to come from other sources to be able to protect not just our students, but also teachers and other support staff,” said Dr. Kessell.

Possible alternatives to in-person learning and potential safety protocols were offered for consideration during the session.

“If schools open, and they will in fact have to be opened at some point, we should probably start with those children who most need in-person instruction,” said Dr. Womack. “Let those who are more capable remain at home and do virtual learning. We cannot fool ourselves to believe 30 children sitting in a classroom is a safe environment under any circumstances.

“I would advocate that we use Saturdays, that we have special tutorial sessions where we’d be using virtual learning, but there will still have to be, maybe three or four times a month, some type of face-to-face contact,” said Lemmons.

Concerns regarding adequate and credible leadership was also a topic of discussion.

Schools are urged to think of the students who, one panelist says, are heavily reliant on the adults around them.

“In order for us to move forward, we have to recognize children are not independent of the adults in their lives and that includes teachers, staff and family or community members,” said Womack.








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