Editor’s Note: Dorothea Williams-Arnold is a senior fellow at The PuLSE Institute, 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. In this column, she makes the case for Detroit Public Schools Community District to mandate vaccinations across the entire school system. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief and dean of The PuLSE Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dorothea Williams-Arnold
Senior Fellow, The PuLSE Institute
COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. The spread of the deadlier Delta variant and the non-committal approach to vaccination mandates will make the need for consistent in-person instruction and learning for the duration of the year a tenuous proposition at best.
It is time for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to make the tough decision for the benefit of the 50,000 students we serve by mandating vaccinations for teachers and everyone in the school system 12 years of age and older. If the school district fails to make such a courageous call, it is likely we will end up where we were last year: in virtual learning with poor overall academic gains and depressed unproductive children and teachers struggling to bear the weight of compounded academic losses. If we are not fully committed to doing what we can to make in-class education work in a way that humanizes and protects the majority, our ability to fully reimagine and improve public education in Detroit will be diminished.
As educators, we should remind ourselves that learning to effectively coexist with COVID-19 and working together towards helping our children heal from the emotional and academic toll of the last two years should be the primary goal. In committing to return to school with the well-being of students foremost in mind, we will begin laying the foundation for our own mending as teachers, as many of us have lost faith in public education, policies and systems and the people who govern them. We feel underappreciated, exhausted and under-compensated compared to our suburban colleagues, but we have endured for the children despite the pressure we are under.
Our ability to affect the kinds of academic gains achieved prior to the pandemic has been chipped away by the constraints of the virus and its unpredictability. It’s been a tremendous challenge to motivate our students to want to learn remotely. Pressure to make up for lost time and to prove our children are making academic gains is overwhelming and discouraging under the limiting conditions we have been working under.
To compound the issue, many teachers struggle to juggle both the needs of their own families and the increasing demands being an educator require. For some, the added health risks are not worth the effort to muster the desire to sacrifice for other people’s children.
But we must, if we truly are committed to this profession, do all we can to help ensure our students not only are able to go back to school but remain there. It means getting the vaccine if your health permits. It means being flexible and summoning our commitment to our vocation until the virus loosens its grip. Things will get better, but we must stay the course because our students depend on us. We can fight for what we need as professionals and, at the same time, be fully dedicated to our students.
Superintendents and school boards alike, especially those governing historically underserved urban school districts (Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Pontiac), must make the necessary hard decisions to ensure our students have uninterrupted access to a physical classroom and that all possible mitigation strategies are utilized. Competitive school districts should offer an online option to non-traditional students, but overall student satisfaction and achievement will continue to suffer if online learning is the primary response to outbreaks and pervasive fear, especially in districts where substantial numbers of students are already behind. Outbreaks are inevitable. Layered approaches to managing them is the only way to keep our schools open. Many suburban districts have managed to remain open. So must Detroit.
Physical classrooms are where most students learn best, and though we may be inclined to blame partisan politics as the reason suburban districts chose to remain open when infection rates were lower, those districts made the right decision. In fact, partisan politics and historically inequitable per pupil funding have gotten in the way of predominantly Black districts’ ability to adequately serve their children. Acquiescing to fear seemed, at the time, the politically safe and expedient solution. With the widespread availability of the vaccine, the recent FDA approval and the availability of booster shots, it is no longer enough to not utilize all available means to protect our children, staff and families. We risk more profound setbacks if vaccinations are not a requirement for teachers and students who are eligible.
On average, students who are at or below the poverty level and those with weaker academic backgrounds do worse with online learning, as recently reported by Ed Week. Last year’s academic losses are proof that consistent attendance, academic gains and student-parent satisfaction are more likely with uninterrupted in-person instruction. Students are more receptive to learning when their teachers and support staff are in close proximity.
As reported by DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti in a recent interview, the district has had its share of setbacks. “During the past year Detroit Public Schools enrollment declined by nearly 3000 students, and fewer students made one year’s worth of academic improvement,” Vitti said.
Moreover, record numbers of undercounted, homeless children are at continued risk of not receiving the services they desperately need. What is the point of a progressive community school model if the threat of school shutdowns are imminent because all possible safety measures are not taken?
If courageous decisions are not made on behalf of students in the state’s largest school district, Detroit will continue to bleed students and seasoned teachers to suburban districts and retirements, which may not be the best academic choice for students or preferred professional move for teachers. Without vaccination requirements for all who qualify, mitigating losses from COVID-19 will be difficult.
Mask mandates help reduce the spread of the virus, but it is not enough. Currently, “Only about one-third (34%) of Detroit adults living with children between the ages of 12 and 17 report that they have either gotten their child/children vaccinated or are likely to get their child/children vaccinated against COVID-19,” according to a recent University of Michigan survey.
While the CDC lacks the ability to mandate vaccinations, since such mandates fall largely within the power of state and local governments, it has not been hesitant in fully expressing the primary role that vaccines play in making our schools safe: “COVID-19 vaccination among all eligible students as well as teachers, staff, and household members is the most critical strategy to help schools safely resume full operations.”
A recent New York Times article offers helpful tips on how to manage risk in schools where the Delta variant is spreading, and uneven vaccination rates are an issue. And the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics confirm that as long as there are “strict safety measures” and a layered approach to mitigating outbreaks and serious illness, schools could be safe places for learning.
As we approach the first day of school in Detroit, approximately 30% of our teachers and more than 60% of our students are currently unvaccinated. Our schools will not be as safe as they could be with this many unvaccinated people. One infected teacher or student could cause a serious outbreak.
For example, as recently reported, an unvaccinated teacher in Marion County, California infected a total of 26 of her elementary school students and their contacts by removing her mask and reading to them. With a vaccination rate of 72%, the impact was not as deadly as it could have been in a place like Detroit.
Since the state is passing the buck and placing the responsibility on local districts to decide what is best for their communities, public schools across the state are kicking the can down the road by refusing to take a stand and mandate vaccinations against COVID 19 for adults and children over 12.
If all possible safety measures are not implemented, our leadership may lose ground on the biggest battle that could lead us to a much larger victory: access to fair and equitable education for our most vulnerable children, equitable per pupil funding, improved student performance, and improved enrollment, strengthening the foundation for a more viable and effective urban public education. The 800 million dollars in pandemic relief funding may help in the short term, but we have more work to do with policy if we are to continue mending the wrongs of the past.
The bittersweet silver lining of the past two years has brought more sustained attention to the subpar services offered in public schools that serve children of color. The focus has made it hard to ignore the racist history being played out in current policies and treatment of Black people. However, the pandemic has encouraged a moral awakening and has shown our public schools in urban areas that they can summon the will to do more. It has revealed how resilient and committed we are as education professionals.
Detroit’s public school officials have demonstrated a firm commitment to our students by providing meals and limited learning spaces despite the heated pushback. The “Are You Ok” campaign illustrates their concern for the emotional and physical wellbeing of chronically absent students. Partnerships have been further expanded with community leaders to provide learning devices for students in need. High stakes tests have been suspended and grading relaxed.
Our public school officials have created high quality online learning platforms and further developed their community education model. We now have access to 25,000 dollars more per student, more than any other district in the state. But what good are these resources if we do not do all in our power to prevent a deadly spread of the Delta variant which would, once again, interrupt student learning?
In order to build on what we have accomplished over the past year and ensure a successful uninterrupted school year, more needs to be done to address safety. Sympathizing with the plight of our Black students is not enough. Submitting to fear when there is a clear way to make schools safe, is not courageous.
If our top decision makers do not exercise the conviction to assure that our school year is not once again interrupted, it would be unfair to expect teachers to bear the burden of narrowing achievement gaps and unreasonable to expect students to want to learn.