Detroit Schools Return to Virtual Learning Amid City’s Rising COVID-19 Positivity Rate

​The district has to take COVID-19 safety strategies “to the next level,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says, and that includes universal testing and vaccines.

The Detroit Public School Community District is returning to virtual learning until Jan. 14 as the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate has passed 40%.

The district is spending this week testing all of its staff and distributing devices to students for online classes. It is re-introducing resources it relied on early in the pandemic when schools were closed: food distribution, IT hubs, hotlines for help with homework, tech issues and mental health needs.  

“[Virtual learning is] not the ideal is not what we’re striving for. But we do believe that between now and the fall, we can ramp up education information and more importantly, access to the vaccine.” –Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District

DPSCD announced in December that all staff would have to be vaccinated by mid-February and that it hoped to implement vaccine mandates for students in the next school year.  

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says students attending DPSCD schools in person will have to have a “testing consent form” on file before the end of the month.  As of right now, 65% of students have a consent form on file. 

“I don’t believe that 35% of parents, for example, are against testing, [they] just they haven’t submitted the consent form … those students that don’t have a consent form on file can’t test.” 

By Jan. 31, which is the beginning of the second semester, the district’s goal is to have all consent forms in. Students without consent forms on file would have to be transferred to the virtual school. Vitti says it’s time to “draw the line in the sand.” 

“If not, we’re kidding ourselves if we can run schools,” Vitti says. While Detroit officials have taken COVID-19 seriously, considering the disproportionate impact it had on residents when the pandemic hit, now is the time to take additional precautions to keep school staff, families and students safe amid the rising infection rate and low vaccination rate in the city, he says. 

Jake Neher/WDET
Jake Neher/WDET

“We’re going to have to take these COVID safety strategies to the next level. And the next step is universal testing, as a requirement and a condition of participating in in person learning. And then the final next step is a vaccine.”  

The district would have to provide online learning to students who don’t get vaccinated. 

“Obviously, that’s not the ideal is not what we’re striving for. But we do believe that between now and the fall, we can ramp up education information and more importantly, access to the vaccine.” 

He points out the vaccination rate for young children is less than 10% and to get vaccination rates up, the district can play a significant role. 

“I think we can do a better job of going deeper with our families, and especially with our students with a vaccine.” 

To do so, Vitti says the district needs direct access to the vaccine. As a district, he says since they engage with students, they’ve built trust with the parents.  

“I think we can … at least increase the vaccination rate in the city through students from 5 years old to 18, 19 who are in our system.  

Vitti says it’s time for a vaccine mandate in workplaces and schools, which is “the only way we can consistently overcome [the pandemic].” 

The district is willing to make hard decisions around implementing a mandate, Vitti says.

“For us as an educational entity, we need to provide consistent and regular instruction in person. And we’re denying a generation of children have that consistent learning if we don’t use the tools that are available to us, which is the vaccine and testing.” 

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  • Sascha Raiyn
    Sascha Raiyn is Education Reporter at 101.9 WDET. She is a native Detroiter who grew up listening to news and music programming on Detroit Public Radio.