Detroit dispatch #3: a pall over the city

April 27, 2020

Detroit–Two weeks of chilly weather—including a little late-spring snow—combined with increasingly dangerous Presidential “leadership,” a quarter of Michigan’s workers claiming unemployment, and more deaths of friends and relatives has cast a pall over the city and state.

Although $825 million in unemployment compensation has been paid, many workers laid off weeks ago are still struggling with the overwhelmed system. The 27% Michigan unemployment rate approaches the 32% in the 1930s but still does not measure the loss of work in the underground economy. In Detroit, a projected budget shortfall of $348 million means that 9,000 municipal workers now face either layoff or pay cuts up to 90% of their pay. While Mayor Mike Duggan has structured the cuts in ways that protect employee healthcare, executive staff, making over $125,000, received only a 5% cut.

More and more people in Detroit are suffering not just from the deaths of friends and family, but the inability to carry out funerals and cultural rituals. Healing will be months away because so much of it depends on close social contact.


Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Nikolai Vitti announced that 51,000 students will receive free laptops with internet access built in for distance learning, hopefully by June. Paper packets have finally been distributed. (About 47,000 of Detroit ‘s school-age children attend charter and out-of-district schools.)

I sat in on a third-grade math class with a family that has internet access. Of the class of 24 children, four, plus one parent, were online and could interact with the teacher. For the entire session she tried to help them work around the glitches so they could turn in their week’s work through the system. I saw bewilderment on the little faces.

Later I learned that the math teachers have been told not to teach because the children watch videos for the actual lessons. The videos are well-done, but again, system glitches have made them inaccessible much of the time.

Add to these problems frequent cancellations of internet classes, bilingual families and alienation between teacher and students: the digital divide has become the  tip of the iceberg of a rapidly widening educational divide.

As a former teacher, I reviewed the printed packets with increasing dismay also. As one parent expressed it “These packets are at a level where they want the children to be. But they were nowhere close even before the pandemic. Even the instructions require a level of literacy that many parents do not have. They are setting the children up to fail.”

–Susan van Gelder


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.