Detroit Public Schools Figure Out Food, Now Plan for Fallout From COVID-19

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Image credit: Sascha Raiyn / WDET

Detroit Public Schools have begun distributing food and course materials to students, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there’s concerns ahead around testing, the school year and keeping employees paid.

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This is the first week all schools in Michigan are closed as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District started distributing food and course materials to students at home Wednesday. But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there’s a lot more on his mind going forward. He’s still not clear when schools would be allowed back in session, affecting an array of decisions. 

If we’re not going to return to school, then I’m thinking what a summer school will possibly look like,” says Vitti.

When you have a crisis like this, that inequity, that [socioeconomic] gap, shows itself even clearer.” — Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

WDET’s Sascha Raiyn visited Mackenzie Elementary Middle School and spoke with Vitti about how the district is handling the closure. He says his priorities are making sure students can access educational materials, but also that employees have stability in their pay. 

As DPSCD, we’re one of the largest employers not only in the city, but the entire state,” Vitti says. “So we can create some economic stability, some peace of mind.”

Click on the player above to hear Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on the route ahead past COVID-19, and read a transcript, edited for length and clarity, below.


Sascha Raiyn, 101.9 WDET: Can you talk a little bit about some of the things you’re managing in terms of making sure your staff gets paid?

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District: So right now, we’ve ensured that all hourly employees are paid for at least two weeks. I believe we have enough in our reserves to continue that beyond two weeks, but we’re trying to receive more clarity from the federal government and state government how either state aid will continue to flow through like it normally would, or additional funds will be provided to maintain employment for hourly workers.

Printed curriculum provided by the district.Sascha Raiyn / WDET
Sascha Raiyn / WDET

Printed curriculum provided by the district.

You’re making physical packets available to families and you have some online resources. We know that some districts are moving education online. Can you talk about the discussion happening within DPSCD about that and some of the obstacles?

So, obviously we printed because it’s just easier to access for our families. At the high school level, we do have SAT packets that we’re providing. There are online platforms available for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

But we know because of the digital divide, not all families have access to a device or more importantly, internet access.

The next thing on my mind right now is how long will this last? Is this going to be three to four weeks? Or possibly not even having school the rest of the year?” — Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

We are having very high level conversations with big businesses in Detroit and outside of Detroit, possibly funding laptops for all families starting at the 12th grade level and moving down. I can’t confirm that yet. But we’re having conversations and that might mitigate some of the realities of the digital divide. So then, that could possibly move teachers to assigning work and then having more flow of academic assignments going through from teachers to parents and students.

For this district with so many students who are in poverty, this kind of situation… Its terrifying.

You know, those that work in DPSCD see this reality every day. They see the challenges that students bring with them. They see the challenges of requiring homework to be completed, studying for tests, because the day-to-day support at the home isn’t there. Not because parents don’t care about their children. It’s just based on their own experiences educationally, their own socio-economic realities. They’re just not able to play that kind of consistent role that you see in a more middle class, upper-middle class family. So when you have a crisis like this, that inequity, that gap, shows itself even clear.

This is the season when we’re expecting standardized testing to happen in public schools. This is also the year when we were expecting the third grade reading law to be implemented. How are you considering those academic situations right now?

Fortunately, we have a governor and a state superintendent that I do believe understand the crisis that we’re in and do understand that it makes no sense to move forward with a third grade retention law. And it makes no sense to continue with standardized testing this year. So they both have clearly advocated for that publicly.

We can create some economic stability, some peace of mind if we are ensured federal and state payment.” — Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

I think they’re waiting for that waiver from the federal government. Florida has already announced, which is a very heavy test state with a very hard pressing Republican governor and legislature. You know, if the federal government theoretically supported the waiver in Florida, why would we not have that support in Michigan?

I imagine that part of your mind is looking past this crisis to how you respond to the next crisis. What does recovery look like on the other end of this?

The first the most dominant question on our mind right now is how do we provide access to academic resources and food as a school system? So I think that started today, there was a lot of work getting to this point.

The next thing on my mind right now is how long will this last? Is this going to be three to four weeks? Or are we going to go into eight weeks and possibly not even having school the rest of the year? And then from there, if we know we’re not going to return to school, then I’m thinking what a summer school will possibly look like. The fear will be the health issue. I think at that point, hopefully we start to see a downturn in confirmed cases. And unfortunately, death cases, but if that’s the case, can we give the sense of security to our employees that they can come back? I think that’s going to be the challenge. And then just regularly ramping up for a new school year.

What are you worried about that I can’t imagine you’re worrying about?

Clarity that federal aid and state aid will continue to flow through is probably the most immediate issue and the way for us to ensure employment. That’s critical.

You know, as DPSCD, we’re one of the largest employers not only in the city, but the entire state. So we can create some economic stability, some peace of mind if we are ensured federal and state payment. We can guarantee that we will keep salary employees where they were from an income perspective and more importantly, hourly employees, if we continue to just keep the same amount of revenue at the federal and state level, at least until the beginning of next year. Then we can have a different conversation with payroll. If tax revenue declines, which it likely will, we can make adjustments going into next year. But at least clarity between now and June 30 would allow us to give assurance that we would not have to lay anyone off.

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Sascha Raiyn, Education Reporter

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.

sraiyn@wdet.org Follow @raiyn

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