Judge: Students must be tested for COVID-19 if Detroit summer school is to continue

DHHS photo
Updated, 6:58 a.m., 7/22/20 with Dr. Vitti’s comments

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that in-person summer school classes can continue in the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) — if all 630 students are tested for COVID-19 within two days.  

U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow’s order comes more than one week after summer school began for DPSCD students on July 13. After two days of protest, a lawsuit was filed by By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing activist group. BAMN argued that the school district, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and state health officials were putting students and school staff in harm’s way. The group argued that in-person classes should not happen during the coronavirus crisis. 

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens heard arguments Friday. Elizabeth Husa Briggs, an assistant attorney general who represents Whitmer and other state defendants, said no state official is involved in any decision or action related to summer school operation or the claims made in the case.

“The decision to reopen schools for in-person learning is a local decision, subject to compliance with the provisions of Executive Order 202-142 ,” Briggs wrote in her brief to have the case dismissed.

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Shanta Driver, BAMN’s attorney, asked Stephens whether she could amend the complaint and refile the case in federal court. That occurred on Monday. 

Meanwhile, protests continued Tuesday morning at a DPSCD school bus yard on the city’s west side. Demonstrations have blocked buses from leaving yards to pick up students. The Detroit Police Department has arrested at least 11 protesters since demonstrations began. 

“There are students in those schools that are being exposed to the virus to take home to their parents and their grandparents. There are teachers in that school who are exposed to the virus to take home to their sons and their daughters, and neighbors. This needs to come to a halt now,” Driver said. 

DPSCD has argued that U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are being followed and that summer school is completely voluntary. Officials did not return calls and emails on Tuesday. 

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District general superintendent, responded in stinging fashion on Tuesday evening to the federal court order earlier in the day regarding the district’s summer school effort, concerns about COVID-19 spread, and a suit to shut down the program because of health concerns.*

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD, general superintendent | Ken Coleman

“Although we are opposed to the federal judge’s order we will comply to provide our students and families with the face-to-face (F2F) instruction services that they are legally entitled to receive through DPSCD’s summer school offering under MI’s Safe Return Phases,” he said. “It is insulting to our parents that they must have their children COVID tested to receive public school services yet parents outside of the city can receive the same services without testing.” 

Vitti said that tests will be done at school to reduce the burden on parents if their consent is given. Results will be returned in 30 minutes. 

“As a district, we were never completely opposed to student testing but continue to question the legal authority to require parents to have their child tested to receive public school educational services, the inequity of requiring our students to test and other districts and schools not requiring the testing, and the burden it places on our parents who are already overwhelmed. The federal judge’s order essentially creates law that far exceeds federal and state safety expectations for students’ return to school under COVID.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.