DC Public Schools Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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Unions representing thousands of DC Public Schools employees say their members have had no real influence on whether they will return to work in-person in late August, or what that should look like if they even wanted to come back to the classroom. The Bowser administration is calling all the shots, union leaders say, even though DCPS workers will be tasked with executing whatever plan the executive ultimately selects. 

During a July 16 press conference about reopening schools, DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee said his staff has been “in regular conversation” with unions about what the 2020-2021 academic year could look like for workers. There appears to be a difference of opinion on what conversation means.    

“Throughout this process, things have been proposed and then we are charged to react to them,” says Richard Jackson, the president of the Council of School Officers, a 750-member union that represents principals and other school administrators. 

This has largely been the experience of all five unions representing workers, from principals to education aides to school nurses, across all of the District’s 115 traditional public schools. Mayor Muriel Bowser has yet to announce whether schools will reopen when the academic year begins August 31; a decision is expected July 31. But before her health department expressed concerns over increasing COVID-19 cases, Bowser was leaning toward a hybrid of in-person and remote education, and released a proposal July 16 that would have small groups of students and staff return to campuses for one to two days of learning every week. Bowser controls only DCPS, not public charter schools.  

“We find out what is going on when the public finds out what is going on,” Jackson tells City Paper. “And, as we’ve shared with DC Public Schools leadership, that is the most impractical way to do this, because then what happens is all the challenges are discussed in public, as opposed to if they really coordinated with their labor partners, we could front-load some of the challenges before they make public announcements.” 

The presidents for two unions, the Council of School Officers and the Washington Teachers’ Union, say learning should be 100 percent virtual until outstanding questions around operations and safety are answered. DCPS and the mayor’s office declined to comment.  

“Our teachers have expressed the need to get back to their classrooms for in-person teaching,” says WTU President Elizabeth Davis. Her union represents roughly 5,000 active and retired teachers. “But they want to do it in a manner that is going to be safe for themselves and for their students. That is not a hard ask.” 

The teachers’ union released its own report in late June about how to reopen schools safely. The compilation of survey findings and guidance authored by nearly 200 teachers makes a number of recommendations, including having a licensed nurse present at all times students and staff are on campus, and providing hazard pay to educators expected to return to in-person instruction. DCPS has acknowledged and thanked WTU for its 20-page report, according to Davis, but has not indicated whether or not it will be including the recommendations in its own planning. Now the union is trying to get DCPS to codify recommendations in a memorandum of agreement, or an addendum to its new collective bargaining agreement. WTU has been in contract negotiations with DCPS since May 2019.

Davis wants the Council to get involved. Unions writ large have reached out to members to discuss worker safety, and some leaders spoke with At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the labor committee, on Wednesday to go over possible solutions.    

“We need to listen to teachers. They should be at the forefront of any plan developed for reopening schools, and the school district has not been very good about listening to teachers,” says Davis. “Authentic collaboration requires more than just telling me what you’re going to do and expecting me to comply.” 

So far, the teachers’ union has filed two “unfair labor practice” complaints with the Public Employee Relations Board against DCPS for how it’s treated workers under the pandemic. The first complaint, filed May 19, alleges that DCPS violated D.C. law for refusing to bargain in good faith by delaying contract negotiations and blaming the pandemic; the board agreed. The second complaint, filed July 8, alleges that DCPS violated D.C. law for “unilaterally imposing changes on bargaining unit members without bargaining” by asking them to sign a “return to in person work intent form” in late June. The complaint says the union met with DCPS to go over its report on how to reopen schools safely just four days before officials sent the intent form, and DCPS made no mention of it. The board has yet to issue a decision. 

WTU told its members not to sign the intent form, which asked them to say whether they’ll be returning to in-person work or applying for leave by July 10. The Council of School Officers and the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—a union representing 1,600 DCPS support workers, like clerical and educational aides—asked the same of their members. It was unclear to union leaders whether workers would be paid or penalized if they opted out of in-person work. It was also unclear what DCPS’ plans were to ensure it is safe for workers to return to in-person work. 

Davis was the only school union leader to be a part of the mayor’s handpicked ReOpen DC Advisory Group. While she is still struggling to collaborate with DCPS, Davis believes being on the group’s education committee enabled the creation of her union’s own report on safely reopening schools. She was only invited to join after public outcry over her initial exclusion from the education committee, which is devoid of any principals or parents, and mostly made up of CEOs and executive directors of education-related organizations. The other school unions were not invited to be a part of the advisory group and some continue to feel slighted. Robert Alston, president of AFSCME Local 2921, called his union’s exclusion from the group’s education committee “disrespectful.” 

Alston says DCPS only started engaging in conversations with his union after he advised members not to sign the intent form. It became clear to him during two conference calls with DCPS that school leaders had not taken into consideration what returning to in-person work would mean for the people he represented. 

School leaders could not provide satisfying answers to multiple questions: What happens if an education aide’s student is unable to wear a mask for reasons relating to disability? Seeing as this student can still carry the virus, what accommodations will this aide receive? Or what would happen if a student just simply refuses to wear a mask? Alston, who is a school suspension coordinator, is still not clear on whether staff would be responsible for penalizing students if they do not want to wear masks or face coverings.    

“Everybody’s concerned,” Alston tells City Paper. “We have family members who have underlying health conditions at home. We ourselves have underlying health conditions.”

He continues, “I hope [Bowser] is listening to the unions and the people who do the work day to day and understand the things that need to be put in place, not just for the workers, but for our students.”     

The lack of input from workers was clear to some of those watching the July 16 press conference. Bowser called a reporter’s question about whether staff could opt out of in-person learning “premature.” 

“We don’t know how many children and parents are going to opt in to in-person. And so when we know that, we will know the matching parent preferences and teacher preferences,” Bowser said, adding that D.C. government employees already have 16 weeks of paid leave for COVID-19 related reasons. 

Jackson, the president for the principals’ union, describes the mayor’s response to this question as “shortsighted.”

“It’s pretty illusionary on the part of the mayor, because over 80 percent of our workforce comes from surrounding jurisdictions, where most—other than Fairfax—have said they are going to do all virtual learning,” says Jackson. (City Paper spoke with him before the Fairfax County Schools superintendent, on Tuesday, recommended beginning the school year virtually.) 

In conversations with Jackson, DCPS could not describe what, if any, accommodations will be given if a significant amount of the workforce cannot attend schools in person because they have a child at home and no child care. “At the best of times, getting subs is a difficult process,” says Jackson. “In the middle of a pandemic, it’s almost laughable, and that was their answer to us when we asked that question.” 

Multiple union leaders also say DCPS was unprepared to answer questions about how social distancing would be enforced in the cafeteria or bathrooms, or if there would be regular air-quality checks since research suggests the coronavirus spreads more easily in poorly ventilated spaces. 

Robin Burns, president of the school nurses’ union within the DC Nurses Association (DCNA), is especially concerned about the school facilities, which can have tight, indoor spaces with little air flow, particularly in the rooms where nurses work. The union met with Children’s National in mid-July because the hospital, not DCPS, manages their contract. The two groups went over new job responsibilities for the upcoming school year, after nurses had been reassigned to COVID-19 testing or contact tracing and reported to DC Health over the summer. Those who refused the reassignment were temporarily laid off, and ultimately dozens were forced to make this decision.      

“There are a lot of questions that have been unanswered by management, and we are going to seek answers and advocate for ourselves to the D.C. health department,” says Burns. The nurses are forming a task force, as the teacher’s union did, and intend to send recommendations to DC Health very soon.  

DCNA wants assurances that nurses will have a position of employment this time around if someone decides to opt out of in-person work for reasons related to their health status or the health status of those they live with. Many school nurses are older than 60, says Burns, and risk getting seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. How might this work if the teachers’ union is calling on DCPS to have at least one nurse in every school whenever staff or students are on campus? Not every school is staffed with a nurse, and some nurses split their time between schools. Burns says this is yet another unanswered question, and the beginning of the school year is just weeks away. 

Meanwhile, the local chapter of Teamsters, the union representing custodial workers and cafeteria workers, says it will support whatever the mayor decides, be it 100 percent virtual learning or a hybrid of in-person and remote education. John Long, the shop steward for Teamsters Local 639, says many of his members never stopped working in-person during the public health emergency. Long, for example, is a custodial foreman who has been reporting almost daily to Martha’s Table, where the D.C. government is offering free food and child care to select individuals. He’s felt relatively safe going into work so far, as the city has provided him with a mask and gloves. 

To reward workers for their efforts, Long says the Bowser administration offered his members a stipend. All DCPS custodial staff returned to in-person work as of the first week of July. Long is always concerned about safety and the consequences his members will face if students and additional staff return to schools in just over a month’s time. He is also concerned about pay for his workers, and what it would mean to go 100 percent virtual when his members can only perform their jobs in person. These are all difficult decisions. 

“I just want us to be safe—that is the main objective,” Long says.