Detroit public school teachers are staging "sick-outs." Here is what you need to know about the school conditions that they say make it difficult to do their jobs. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Detroit teachers sick of working in appalling conditions called in sick in huge numbers today, forcing nearly all of Detroit’s public schools to close. How appalling?  In a piece titled, “How can you teach or learn in conditions like this,” which was published on the PBS NewsHour Teachers’ Lounge blog, Detroit counselor Lakia Wilson wrote:

The odorous smell of mold and mildew hits you like a brick wall when you step through the front doors at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.

I have been at Spain for 19 years, first as a first-grade teacher, then, after earning a master’s degree in counseling, as a school counselor. When I first started, it was a school any city would be proud to have in its district. Today, it’s the poster child for neglect and indifference to a quality teaching and learning environment for our 500 students. The gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold. Instead of professionally addressing the problem, a black tarp simply was placed over the entire area like a Band-Aid. That area of the school has been condemned.

The once beautiful pool sits empty because no one has come to fix it. The playground is off-limits because a geyser of searing hot steam explodes out of the ground. What do our kids do for exercise with no gym, playground or pool? They walk or run in the halls. Seriously. Our pre-K through eighth graders move like mall walkers.


A group of teachers, parents and children protest  Jan. 11, 2016, in Detroit. A wave of teacher absences shut down more than half of Detroit’s 100 public schools for a few days this week. (Kim Kozlowski/Detroit News via AP)

Exposed wires hang from missing ceiling tiles. Watermarks from leaks abound. Kids either sit in freezing classrooms with their coats on or strip off layers because of stifling heat.

How can you teach or learn in conditions like these?

According to the Detroit Free Press:

Teachers have been using rolling sickouts in recent weeks to spotlight the poor conditions of dilapidated schools. Many say they’re also concerned about stagnant wages, super-sized classes and Gov. Rick Snyder’s controversial plan to divide DPS into two, creating a new debt-free school district.

“I feel like if this is the only way that someone will at least listen to all the atrocities that are going on in DPS, then I support the teachers 100%,” said Jeffrey Gisstennar, president of the parent group at Renaissance and father of a sophomore. “Teachers have one of the most important jobs on the planet.”

It is illegal in Michigan for teachers to strike, so teachers in nearly 90 of the 100 or so public schools in the district called in sick as a way to get around the prohibition, according to the Free Press. The Detroit Federation of Teachers says it is not behind the strike. But union officials say conditions have become impossible. Class sizes are sometimes 45 or 50 students per teacher,  buildings are literally crumbling, a teacher shortage persists, and, in new budget cuts this month, some security guards were let go though school district officials haven’t said exactly how many.

The city’s public school system has been in serious trouble for years. A report issued this month by the nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan said that the Detroit district has a debt of more than $3.5 billion, and:

It is clear that something must be done. Despite being under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager since 2009, Detroit Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is failing academically and financially.  It was recently reported that DPS ranked last in academic achievement (4th and 8th graders) among urban districts nationally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This was the fourth time in a row that DPS ranked at the bottom of all large city districts in the country. At the same time, the district has been grappling with chronic operating budget deficits, growing liabilities and indebtedness, and challenges to meet payroll. After years of state control of DPS, state policymakers are again being called to develop a new approach to deal with the district’s problems…. What is clear is the fact that a policy response must be a first-order priority of state officials. And while policymakers’ actions may be motivated by the longevity and sheer size of DPS’s financial and academic problems, a call to action must be prompted by the nearly 48,000 Detroit schoolchildren and the fact that they are not currently receiving the quality education they deserve and are entitled.

Here’s a video of Wilson describing a day in the life of her school: