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COVID testing in nearly 20% of Detroit district schools far short of goal

More than half of the students enrolled in 19 schools in the Detroit district don’t have consent forms on file allowing them to be tested weekly for COVID, illustrating how far some buildings must go to meet the district’s new test-to-learn-in-person policy.

Regular testing has become a crucial part of strategies schools employ to fight COVID spread and keep buildings open, particularly as the omicron variant has led to a post-holiday break surge in infections. In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, students have had to opt in for weekly saliva testing (it is required of employees). But that changes Jan. 31, when parents must consent to student testing in the district’s 104 buildings, or enroll their children in the district’s virtual school.

The looming deadline is why the district is launching an aggressive effort to get parents to sign the consent forms. Parent meetings will be held. Robocalls will be sent. Everyone from teachers to clerical staff and attendance agents will be talking to parents about it. Home visits are possible.

“This is going to be a full out blitz between now and Jan. 31,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “It will be hard for parents to not know this is an expectation.”

Overall, the district has the OK to test about 68% of its nearly 50,000 students. But the school-by-school COVID testing data, obtained by Chalkbeat this week, shows how difficult that will be in some buildings. Among those with low consent rates are Fisher Magnet Upper Academy and Keidan Special Education Center, both with just 20% of their students having consent forms.

That’s in stark contrast to five schools (Chrysler Elementary, Coleman Young Elementary, Detroit Lions Academy, Diann Banks-Williamson Educational Center, and Gardner Elementary) where 100% of the students have consent forms on file.

Christen Jefferson, a DPSCD parent and health care worker, said she understands why testing is so important.  Jefferson’s daughters attend Mumford High School, which has a consent rate of 43.1 percent.

“We do need to test weekly, because you have a lot of kids that are asymptomatic, they’re walking around, they don’t know they’re carrying it, and then it’s taking it to other kids,” she said. Jefferson added that she overheard a teacher in one of her daughters’ virtual classes on Thursday “stressing the importance of parents signing” consent forms.

Vitti wants a 100% consent rate in each building and is optimistic the district will get there during  the next two weeks. He doesn’t believe ideological opposition to testing is at play. Instead, he said, “it’s just a matter of getting the forms in.”

Still, there is “going to be a group of parents that object, unfortunately. But logically, there is absolutely no reason why a student can’t put a little bit of saliva in a test tube. It takes literally two seconds to do.”

Vitti spoke on a wide variety of topics related to the pandemic during a Thursday afternoon interview with Chalkbeat. Here are some highlights of that interview:

  • Vitti said he will announce by Tuesday or Wednesday whether students will return to in-person instruction on Jan. 18. Right now, a return seems unlikely. The city’s positivity rate hovers around 40%. Vitti said there would have to be a significant drop in that rate. The city’s high infection rate and relatively low percentage of people who are fully vaccinated (around 37%) make it difficult to operate in person when there are a number of students and staff infected or exposed, and thus needing to quarantine.
  • Testing conducted by the district this week (required for employees and recommended for students) shows how widespread the virus is. He said Thursday that with some test results outstanding, about 10% of staff and almost 14% of students were testing positive. “If we had opened up school on Monday, we would have had at least 600 employees … testing positive or coming to schools positive. And you could imagine the spread that would have happened with that.”
  • Vitti has been vocal about what he says is a need for a student vaccine mandate. The district has already adopted a new policy requiring employees to be vaccinated by Feb. 18. He has said the district is looking at implementing a student mandate by the beginning of the school year. The lack of a vaccine mandate, he said, “is leading to operational chaos and dysfunction in school.” He said state guidelines that require quarantine for unvaccinated individuals in certain circumstances are a clear indication that the best way to protect against the virus, or serious effects of the virus, is vaccination. Republican lawmakers aren’t likely to require vaccines, he said. Neither is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “I think she believes that that might be the best way to go. But politically, she won’t go there because she’s worried about reelection,” Vitti said. If state lawmakers won’t require vaccines, then they should “get out of the way” of districts that want to implement such policies on their own. “Don’t put us in a straitjacket to do what we need to do to allow school to move forward with greater consistency.”

Latrese Taylor, a DPSCD parent, said she doesn’t support a vaccine mandate. But she backs the testing requirement.  Taylor has children enrolled at Ronald Brown Academy, which has a rate of 41.2 percent

“My kids get tested weekly and it should be required. I’ve said this for a while, even inquired on one of the virtual calls with Dr. Vitti before school was back in session,” Taylor said.

She said she gets her sons tested even though they rarely leave home.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

This article was originally posted on COVID testing in nearly 20% of Detroit district schools far short of goal

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