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With White House COVID-19 Outbreak as Backdrop, D.C. Schools Announce Plans to Begin In-Person Learning Next Month; Teachers Union Raises Safety Concerns

By Taylor Swaak | October 5, 2020

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee speaks at an Oct. 5 press conference announcing a return to school in November for pre-K, elementary school learners. (Facebook Live/ Mayor Bowser)

D.C. Public Schools announced Monday it will allow thousands of pre-K and elementary schoolers back for in-person instruction in November, though the plan quickly raised safety concerns from the teachers union.

In a formal response, the Washington Teachers Union implored DCPS to provide more clarity around staffing plans, cleaning protocols and PPE distribution before moving forward — days after a COVID-19 outbreak at the White House among President Donald Trump and some in his close circle.

“It’s clear that the virus is still in our community, and the event at the White House clearly shows that when proper protections aren’t in place, we can have a super spreader event,” WTU spokesman Joe Weedon said. “And that would be devastating to our school communities.”

DCPS’s plan, which will prioritize homeless students, English learners, students with disabilities and those considered at risk, could serve up to 21,000 students in pre-K through fifth grade on a voluntary basis — nearly three-quarters of all students across those grades, schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said during Monday’s presser.

Seven thousand of those students would be in small classroom cohorts starting Nov. 9, learning fully in-person five days a week. The remaining 14,000 would still be receiving virtual instruction, but — as with the 13 “student support centers” DCPS announced last week — will be in a classroom with a screened adult, not necessarily a teacher, to monitor and assist with online classes.

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“We know at this time that working at home is not working for every student, and we particularly know that our youngest learners have been the most challenged,” Ferebee said.

Middle and high school students won’t return until likely January at the earliest.

The process for choosing the 21,000 students will be randomized. Parents will receive notice if their child is being offered a spot by Oct. 23. Ferebee emphasized that any family can decline and choose to have their child remain in an at-home, all-virtual format. (Read more here.)

Many district parents, saddled with child care needs and worried about learning loss, do want their kids to go back. And other districts are thinking about returns to school, too; one of the nation’s largest districts, Montgomery County Public Schools, gave its labor unions notice in late September that it was starting the formal planning process for reopening school buildings.

But there are still issues with trust, especially between the district and WTU, on whether schools are ready to open safely.

Elizabeth Davis, president of the union — which for months has promoted an #OnlyWhenItsSafe campaign — said in a statement Monday, “The Mayor and Chancellor Ferebee have failed to share the details of what COVID-19 safety measures have been instituted in each school,” adding, “Teachers, rightly, feel as if they are playing Hunger Games with the Mayor and Chancellor.”

It was unclear Monday whether DCPS currently has the staff on hand to reopen at the scale the district outlined. The teachers union is asking DCPS to do the following “before they move forward with plans to reopen our schools to in-person learning,” according to Monday’s statement:

  • Agree to a safety checklist for school facilities
  • Agree to a Memorandum of Agreement that “covers school operations and develop specific staffing plans and guidance for teachers at each school”
  • “Clear and specific protocols” developed in partnership with the union for cleaning and sharing information on COVID exposure in school communities
  • Details on the purchase and distribution of PPE for school communities

Tension remains, too, on a staffing survey the district sent out last week asking teachers to indicate if they can or can’t return to schools. Davis has told union members not to respond for now.

Robust safety protocols, WTU spokesman Weedon noted, are especially critical when considering the past few days. Just a week before Monday’s announcement, D.C. had seen its lowest number of new cases since July. By late last week, the president and at least 10 others who had attended a White House Rose Garden event in late September had tested positive.

Ferebee on Monday did expound on some safety precautions the district intends to take to keep students and staff safe. Elementary schools are being prioritized for HVAC enhancements, he said — as of last week, 24 of 80 elementary schools had open work orders — and schools have been given PPE.

DCPS remains “committed” to having conversations with union members around reopening, he said. “We were able to reach an agreement for how we would operate in Term 1. … Discussions are very active, and will continue.”

Monday’s presentation also outlined district response scenarios and reporting protocols if someone in the school community tests positive for coronavirus.

D.C. Councilmember David Grosso, who chairs the education committee, said he believes the district has taken a “thoughtful approach [to reopening] that I think will serve students well.” While he does still have questions — notably around ensuring the quality of services provided to students with disabilities — he felt Monday’s presentation was informative.

“A lot of this, I think, is the chicken-or-the-egg question — are you supposed to do all these things, like building the plane on the runway, or do you come up with a concrete plan like they’ve done and then ask for people’s input and adjust?” he said. “I think people can have confidence in this.”

The city council plans to hold a hearing in late November or early December that’s “going to check in on this, see how it’s going,” Grosso said. “I also know the public is not shy — they’ll let us know if they see things that are just going completely awry.”

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