COVID-19 Impact: Poverty-Stricken Detroit Hit by Teacher Anxiety, Student Decline

Editor’s Note: Dorothea Williams-Arnold is a senior fellow at The PuLSE Institute’s Academy of Fellows, where she focuses on the academic needs of students in poor communities. She teaches English and Language Arts at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, and is a 14-year veteran of public education. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute and the dean of the Institute’s Academy of Fellows at

By Dorothea Williams-Arnold

The pandemic has taken an unprecedented toll on Detroit school children. At the time of this writing, an estimated 2000 kids from the Detroit Public Schools Community District are said not to have returned to school. Added to that number are thousands of students who are chronically absent from their remote learning classes. In order to identify and address the difficulties students are encountering logging on and to locate students who have completely dropped off the school’s radar, the district launched their “Are You OK” health and wellness campaign. The goal of this initiative is to provide additional support and services for our most at-risk students.

Over the last three weekends, these door-to-door canvasing events, led by the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, have been taking place. I, along with a host of other teachers, administrators and community partners have been spreading out across the city to knock on doors and provide families information on supportive services the district is offering. We combed through streets speckled with boarded up homes and circled neighborhoods only to find that some addresses did not exist. On most days of canvasing, we were only able to contact a fraction of the parents of students on our list.

The top issues reported by the parents we were able to contact include missing or broken electronic devices, the inability to supervise their children because of time spent working outside the home. Older students are charged with assisting their younger sibling’s online learning and thus losing motivation to log on themselves. Some parents offered no reason at all, just a courteous, perfunctory agreement to get their children back online.

Asenath Jones, a 24-year veteran educator and Dean of students at Cass Technical High School believes that many of these children may not be recoverable until school fully opens.

“These children are not missing. They have not completely checked out; they are at home surviving the best way they can,” Jones told me.

For many students, the physical school space is much more than a place that tends to their academic needs; it is where their physiological and psychosocial needs are met as well. There are too many barriers to learning at home and few incentives to log on. For many of our families, however, home feels like a safer option than face to face because of the fear of contracting COVID-19 and low confidence in the district’s ability to provide a safe learning environment.

A September Brookings study estimates that though more than half of American students are in remote only districts, “Over two-thirds of students of color are starting their school day by logging on to a computer…families of color are likely to live in cities, in no small part as a result of housing segregation. Not surprisingly, then, students of color are likely to live in city school districts which are more likely to be online—than their white counterparts.” Long-standing disparities that have always existed between students in urban districts and their suburban counterparts are continuing to play out in the controversy surrounding school openings.

The Washington Post reported similar resistance to in-person learning among people of color who depend on D.C. public schools. “Across the country, Black and Hispanic communities have been hit hardest by the virus, and many of these families have told their school districts they do not feel safe sending their children back to school buildings. In D.C., families in the poorest ward rejected offers for an elementary school spot at twice the rate of families in the wealthiest one, according to city data.”

As positive COVID-19 cases have begun to stabilize in Detroit and vaccine availability ramped up for frontline workers, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has set March 1 as the target date for schools to reopen, but it may be a controversial proposition in the nation’s largest Black city that has seen more than its fair share of casualties from this virus. Fear has taken hold and nearly crippled our district.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “African Americans represent nearly 14 percent of the state’s population, yet they represent 40 percent of deaths from coronavirus.” Black people in the city of Detroit were dying from this virus at an alarmingly high rate, and it did not take long for us to figure out that we needed to hold tight and wait until this virus loosened its grip.   

For teachers and families of children in predominantly Black school districts, the decision to return to the pre-COVID educational model is burdened by an immutable fear likened to a post traumatic, instinctual wariness of a possible perilous situation. Racism, redlining, segregation, mismanagement and abuse of our public schools and our people have created a justifiable, heightened sense of circumspection and lack of trust in the system. Public institutions charged with protecting and serving have not done so for people of color and the poor who depend on them. 

Until teachers and parents have more confidence in our public institutions and the policies that govern them, many will wait it out until they feel confident that it is safe to return. Unfortunately, though, many of our young people are languishing in isolated, unsupportive learning spaces while we rest comfortably. I believe we can do better for our young people in this district. We are letting our most needy young people down at a time when they need us to be courageous in our commitment to serve.

While families outside the inner city are experiencing their own loss to the pandemic, these losses have been far less severe on a per capita basis than in Detroit and thus have not resulted in the same heightened fear and resistance to face-to-face instruction as in urban centers like Detroit. Some Black people in mostly White districts seem more confident sending their children to a physical classroom space.

For example, Scott Johnson, an African American logistics manager for the U.S. Army, resident of Chesterfield Township, and father of a senior who attends L’Anse Creuse North High School in Macomb County, says that he is fairly satisfied with the way his district has handled the coronavirus crisis. His family opted to send their son to a physical classroom every day.

“Initially the schools shut down, but the majority of the parents were not having it; they wanted their kids in school. We had the option of in class instruction or remote,”  Johnson said. He noted, however, that teachers in his district did not have a choice–they were to return to the classroom or take leave. It is also worth noting that the district chose to outsource their virtual learning program–it is not facilitated by teachers, which may be why the classroom seemed the more appealing option for approximately 70 percent of parents and students who chose it.

According to Mr. Johnson, “Safety measures put in place seem to be working. No major virus outbreaks have taken place because of the schools strict safety measures put in place.”  It may seem as though suburban districts have a few things going for them, which may make it easier and safer to offer in person instruction: less post-traumatic stress from marginalization of its residents and therefore more trust in their institutions, and funding for the necessary infrastructure modifications.

At the beginning of the school year, like many suburban districts, DPSCD, was able to offer a safe in-class option for all grade levels, though interest was low among teachers and families alike. In a short period of time, the positive outcomes for those who chose the in-class option has been a testament to the future possibilities as we cautiously but steadily move toward a post-pandemic reality. It also is a reminder that returning to a classroom does not have to be the disaster some fear it will be. 

Innocent Duval, a first and second grade teacher at FLICS- Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies, a Detroit Elementary School, and one of the only public immersion programs in the state, found the face-to-face option to be an overall rewarding experience, more so than before the virus struck.

“My class size was at 15 students, and the district provided an assistant.  Under normal conditions, I may have up to 25 students. I was even more effective than pre-COVID-19 because I was not stretched as thin. I could cover more of the curriculum because my class sizes were smaller. My kids were doing well,” Duval said.

His major challenge arose when the district had to suspend all in-class learning because of increasing infection rates.

“It’s harder to engage first graders online for an hour without additional support; now, I am only able to teach about 60 percent of what I could cover in the classroom. I have 15 students in one class and 25 in another; 3 aren’t showing regularly; one hasn’t shown up at all,” Duval said.

Duval also has to spend a significant amount of time troubleshooting technical issues, and filling in for parents who are not able to assist their children because they struggle to provide their young ones support during their remote learning. The lengths to which he has to go to ensure his students have what they need includes driving to their homes to provide the materials or additional assistance and slowing down the class in order to work out technical issues and ensure his students are following along.

According to Duval, “The best thing about choosing face-to-face is that I have come to appreciate how much I am able to accomplish with fewer students in the classroom. They were more motivated and more present” By offering families the option of online or face-to-face, there will be fewer students while we gradually transition back to full in-person classrooms or hybrid variation in the interim. 

As we begin working towards bringing our children back into the classroom, the conversation continues about our student’s looming academic losses and related teacher anxiety over how they will recover from this extended period outside of a real classroom. 

Asenath Jones, offered a sagacious take on how we should handle student academic losses at this moment: “We need to realize that our children need to survive this pandemic; we all need to survive this pandemic. The kids will be behind, and that is ok, for now. Our kids are resilient; they always have been. They will rise to their destiny when this is all over. Also, we must remember that school is a safe place for them. It is a place where they can get away from abuse, hunger, isolation. We must understand that when our kids begin to feel better, they will do better.” 

Jones insists that they do not need additional pressure.

If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that our children need us more than ever right now, and our commitment to them needs to be firmly in place. Upon returning to in-class learning, we must consider reimagining the role our public schools can play in supporting our students. Jones offers this: “Teachers, administrators, the district cannot do it alone: We need more creative approaches to educating and supporting our most needy children, and some of it needs to come from the community, families and partners. Now, more than ever, we need that village.”

One comment

  1. This is another insightful article. I graduated high school a couple of years early, and value keeping Detroit’s learners safe while provisions are made for their safe return to physical classrooms. Any short-term losses in achievement can be made up with effective engagement of these students once they return to safe learning spaces. Thank you for everything you do to keep the focus on learning and mechanisms to facilitate it.

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