Education Collides With Health And Safety, As First Day Of School Nears

It has been said that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” But as a poignant video dealing with the coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on Detroit released by the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) also states: “one death is one too many.”

And it is this issue of how to best educate all Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) students in the safest manner possible for everyone involved that remains unsettled as the District nears its Sept. 8 start date for students.

DFT members voted overwhelmingly (91 percent of votes cast) on Aug. 19 to authorize a potential “safety strike.” According to a press release issued by the DFT, the safety strike is aimed at pressing the Detroit Public Schools Community District to implement basic science-based safety protocols before schools reopen during the continuing coronavirus pandemic.” The release goes on to say: “The vote to approve the authorization for the safety strike means that members agree to teach and work remotely, while not endangering their safety. It is not a work stoppage.”

On Monday (Aug. 24), DFT president Terrence Martin spoke with the Michigan Chronicle, and the focus of the conversation remained on safety.

“The actions of the DFT are primarily guided by health and safety concerns that we have for students and staff returning for face-to-face instruction in the fall,” said Martin, whose union is negotiating a collective bargaining agreement for DFT members.

Martin explained that while DPSCD classroom teachers were given a choice to perform face-to-face or virtual (distant) learning, that same choice was not extended to other DPSCD staff members that also are DFT members, including social workers and other specialized staff.

“We want to respect the professionalism of all of our members, by making sure all members have the same level of choice,” said Martin, who makes the case that DFT members are the District’s “front-line workers” and should receive the same respect that other front-line workers have received during the pandemic.

Earlier Monday, the Michigan Chronicle received a previously issued statement from the DPSCD School Board and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti addressing the DFT’s vote to approve a potential safety strike. The statement read: “While we acknowledge the action taken today (Aug. 19) by DFT, we are also confident the School Board and the District in discussion with DFT will result in a safe reopening of schools.”

The statement sent to the Michigan Chronicle by Chrystal Wilson, the District’s assistant superintendent of communications and marketing, was followed by a link to the District’s “reopening” plan on the DPSCD website. As of Tuesday morning, much of the language regarding safety indicates planned measures, but it is unclear from the information provided on the site how many of the measures have been performed. For example, a Q&A section addressing safety in high traffic areas reads: “The District plans to provide staff with a supply of disinfectant wipes, and mobile hand sanitizer dispensers throughout buildings. The District is also working to install plexiglass barriers at frequently visited spaces.” Another Q&A section addressing temperature taking reads: “The District is working to install contactless walk-up devices that will scan for higher-than-normal temperatures at entries and may also rely on trained staff with forehead-style thermometers to check temperatures upon entry.”

Martin said any grey areas surrounding the implementation of safety measures would be unacceptable.

“We need confirmation,” said Martin, who went on to say that all CDC (Centers For Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines must be met to ensure a safe physical return to DPSCD schools for students and staff.

The urgency and complexity of the safety issues being discussed by DPSCD and DFT as Sept. 8 get closer it’s also being felt by parents, including Ta’Mara Williams. A parent liaison at Noble Elementary-Middle School and a proud product of Detroit Public Schools, Williams does not hide her passion and support for the District and its administration. However, in a conversation Monday evening, she confided how challenging the days have been.

“You just have to rock the boat slow and hope it don’t tip over,” said Williams, who has three daughters at DPSCD schools.

Williams said if she had not received notice that Marygrove High School—the school attended by her 10th grader Zyairah—would be beginning the school year online that she would have been okay with face-to-face learning, if that was her daughter’s choice, given high school student’s ability to follow safety protocols and the smaller enrollment size of Marygrove. But Williams said it was a totally different decision when it came to her two daughters at Noble (Ta’Leah, second grade) and Lyric (kindergarten), and that virtual learning was the only possible route given the young age of both girls and the affection that the kids have at their school.

“You can’t stop the love they have for each other; that love is something you can’t deny,” said Williams, who explained that the young students at Noble would have even more difficulty staying apart physically and not hugging, given that they have been away from each other for months.

Williams said she believes that virtual learning can be successful for all DPSCD students if parents and families make the most of the resources provided by the District, for example, the Connected Futures Project enabled 51,000 students and families to receive wireless tablets and internet access for in-home use; and to connect with DPSCD teachers utilizing online learning resources.

“DPSCD is doing a very good job of providing the tools that we need to get started this school year,” said Williams, who explained that now each of her daughters can go online when they need to for school lessons. “They’re (DPSCD) planning for success when it comes to the children; we just all have to work together.”

Williams also says there is a vital role for the greater community to play to ensure that all District students receive the most successful educational experience possible regardless of where the learning takes place. She calls this concept “family and community engagement” and defines it as a desire to not only take care of your own children but also everyone else’s children. And Williams’ way of thinking is embraced by other community members, including Carl Hardin, a financial systems administrator for the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network.

When the educational year was interrupted in March at the beginning of the pandemic, Hardin used the opportunity to launch a book club for an enthusiastic group of Detroit young men, ranging in age from 9 to 16, through the Sigma Beta Club. The book club has carried on, and its members are about to begin their third selection, “Static” by Eric Laster.

Hardin said he is proud to do his part to provide additional enrichment to Detroit students during these challenging times, and he said Detroit children have what it takes inside to make the upcoming school year successful.

“My wish for all Detroit students is that they use this a positive and find a way to excel and achieve even more than they would have if they were going to school under normal circumstances,” Hardin said. “Adversity builds greatness, and I believe our kids are smart enough and creative enough to find a way. And our kids are not only smart; they’re caring too—they are our future leaders.”

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