• Sun. Nov 29th, 2020

Chaos, fear and doubt: Two weeks in, Detroit parents question tough choices about school

When she learned that schools in Detroit’s main district planned to allow as many as 20 students in a classroom, she decided to keep her kids home.

“They’re not going to be able to keep them away from each other,” she said a week before classes began. “I can’t chance that. Not at all.”

She felt good about her decision — until the first day of school arrived.

Johnson, who had taken the week off from her job as a medical transport driver, had planned to get up on Sept. 8 and get her children connected with their classes. In addition to Riley, she has three others at home: Erron, a second grader; Elijah, an eighth grader; and Jaliyah, a high school freshman.

She dressed the younger two in their yellow school uniform shirts, even though the school didn’t require them.

“I wanted them to be ready,” she said, “to know ‘this is what I have to do to be ready for school, whether I’m going out of the house or not.'”

But her plans were thrown into turmoil by a robocall telling her she needed to come to her children’s schools to get books and materials. Worse, the call didn’t come from a school where she thought her children were enrolled. The district — without telling her — had apparently responded to a transfer request she’d made months earlier and moved at least one of her kids to a different school, but she wasn’t sure which child.

Sorting out the confusion wasn’t easy. It took visits to four different schools and temperature checks at four different doors to get the right books from the right schools.

“This is the first day of school blues for real!” she said as she drove through the steady rain that drenched the city that morning.

By the time Johnson swept through the door of her family’s bungalow, it was nearly 10 a.m. and her children were two hours late for school.

She quickly got to work, handing Jaliyah the books and logons she needed to access her classes, then trying to fire up the three laptops she’d lined up on a desk for her sons. But browsers needed updating. Passwords didn’t work. Elijah’s computer showed him still enrolled at the wrong school, and, as she bounced from one laptop to the next, the boys were getting impatient.

“I know, baby. I’m ready for you to work, but we’ve got to get this stuff situated,” she told Erron as she tried to re-enter a password that wasn’t working.

By the time Johnson got Riley connected with his teacher around 10:30 a.m., his class was about to break for lunch; his camera was facing backward, getting video of the wall, instead of his face; and Riley was confused about where to look on the screen.

“Mommy, I don’t see my class,” he said.

She didn’t connect with Erron’s class until 11 a.m., and by then, live instruction appeared to be over. She found a worksheet on rhyming words that Erron needed to complete but she couldn’t figure out how to submit his answers.

“I’m sitting here going crazy!” she said.