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

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During a press conference on Monday, Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration announced that DC Public Schools will welcome most elementary students back to campus five days per week in November, at the start of Term 2. The unions that represent thousands of workers who staff DCPS’ 115 schools did not know the news was coming Monday, nor did they know the details of what Term 2 will look like.

“We hear information when you hear this,” says Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

Richard Jackson, president of the Council of School Officers, which represents principals and other administrative staff, would have preferred to know the plan prior to the press conference. “We would want prior conversations before public declarations, so we can work through what the details are,” he says.  

Jackson says his members are now being bombarded with questions from community members about the mayor’s planning for Term 2. But principals do not have answers, and they have some questions themselves. One principal asked Jackson what happens if the school’s only teachers for second grade have pre-existing conditions? Who will then lead in-person instruction? Jackson says DCPS did not host a meeting with principals until after the public announcement.

The leaders of unions representing teachers, principals, and nurses say they want students and staff to return to schools only when it is safe. But knowing whether it is safe requires getting answers to questions like “Does the school have a full-time, on-site nurse?” and “Do all the classrooms have access to operable windows?” So far, the unions say they have not received all the necessary information they need to make an informed decision about returning to work.

Meanwhile, DC Public Schools says they’ve engaged with union partners in good faith as they’ve tried to navigate extraordinarily difficult circumstances. DCPS agreed to have principals host “building walks” with union representatives later this month.

Virtual learning has been less than optimal for students, particularly younger ones, who need social and emotional support that can only really be obtained in person. The school system likely felt pressure to announce that it is reopening campuses for some students, particularly given that some private and charter schools welcomed students back for in-person learning in September.

“Today, we wanted parents to know what our expectations are,” said DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee during Monday’s press conference. “We will continue conversations with all of our union partners around what will be required of them and what will be required of us.”

The teachers’ union wants DCPS to at least follow its school safety checklist before moving ahead with any kind of in-person instruction. The checklist touches on personal protective equipment, ventilation in facilities, and general safety protocols. Davis expects Ferebee will let the union know by Wednesday if DCPS will follow the checklist. She already knows that DCPS will not be able to meet all the requirements outlined in the checklist, like having N95 masks on campuses, due to costs. But the union is willing to exercise some flexibility, she says.   

DCPS did not agree to meet the requirements of the checklist ahead of the mayor’s decision, much to the distress of the teachers’ union. It’s unclear if DCPS will actually move forward with in-person instruction without the support of the unions.

“I don’t want to play too much ‘what if,'” Ferebee said, when asked what happens if the school system does not have enough teachers to support in-person instruction come November.

“I know we were able to reach an agreement for how we would operate in Term 1, and we had a very rich conversation last week about what that would like for Term 2. And we both agreed that we needed to double down and spend more time having more discussions,” he continued.

Davis is frustrated that Ferebee made no mention of Monday’s announcement, even though they spoke multiple times last week and into the weekend. Now, Davis says she has middle and high school teachers reaching out to her, asking why they were told to fill out a survey on whether they want to return to in-person instruction if only elementary students are being invited back.

Last week, DC Public Schools sent every teacher a survey asking them whether they plan to teach in person or online in the coming months. Teachers originally had until Monday, Oct. 5 to respond or else the default response would be to teach in person. Davis then advised teachers to ignore the survey because the union and central office has yet to reach an agreement on reopening schools. The news was first reported by the Washington Post.  

After realizing they would not reach a resolution by the deadline, Davis advised teachers to respond to the survey. Davis still takes issue with the survey. For one, the platform educators use to fill out the survey experienced technical problems up until Monday morning, making it hard for them to submit their preferred option. (Ferebee has extended the deadline to Oct. 6 as a result.) But Davis also says it’s unreasonable to expect teachers with underlying health conditions to provide all their medical documentation by Oct. 9 for the central office to consider their priority preference.

The unions maintain they’ve been excluded from reopening talks since the beginning of the pandemic. The principals’ and nurses’ unions were not invited to be on the mayor’s task force on reopening schools, created in April, and the teachers’ union was initially excluded as well

A vivid example of the divide between school unions and the Bowser administration came on Friday, when union leadership visited a campus that had already welcomed students back for in-person instruction. They wanted to see for themselves if the few schools that had opened are ready, because they’ve become distrustful of education officials. But 15 minutes into their unannounced visit, Davis, Jackson, and Garnett Freeman and Wala Blegay with the District of Columbia Nurses Association were asked to leave due to safety concerns. 

“We have been told that those schools are ready to be open, yet we were hearing that there were some concerns around the school readiness, particularly with HVAC systems, with plumbing,” Jackson told reporters outside of Phelps ACE High School in Northeast D.C. 

Based on information from their members, union leadership decided to visit three of the thirteen schools that Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration partially reopened last week to supplement virtual learning. Jackson says 15 minutes into touring Cardozo Education Campus, the school’s logistics director asked the four of them to leave the building. When asked why, they were told it was unsafe for them to be inside, according to Jackson. It’s unclear who gave the orders. Jackson says union leaders did not ask DCPS for permission to tour the schools. They went to the front office to ask to tour facilities.

“We were told that PPE, plexiglass, and those sorts of things were put up,” Jackson tells City Paper. “We just wanted to see it.” 

“To use the excuse that it is unsafe for us to be there when all of our members are in there working makes no sense,” he adds. “If it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe.” 

What they did see left Davis unsatisfied. WTU posted photos from their brief tour of schools on Twitter on Friday afternoon:

A spokesperson for DCPS did not directly comment on the unions’ visit, but says building access is restricted to ensure the health and safety of those on campus. Visitors must be approved by the school administration. When asked to see the information DCPS gave to unions regarding the health and safety protocols that the 13 reopened schools are following, the spokesperson provided a link to a list of general protocols the school system has committed to implementing. The list does not provide answers to specific questions unions have asked, like how staff and students are informed of a positive case on campus.

“Our recommendations have not been implemented. Many of the health suites, our nurses have reported to us, do not have proper ventilation,” said Blegay, the staff attorney with the nurses’ union, on Friday. “Many nurses do not know what the process is … who is going to be taking temperatures? Many places’ isolation rooms have not been identified.”   

“Why are students being allowed back into the schools when these processes have not been put in place,” Blegay asked. 

Blegay maintains nothing has changed between now and Friday. “The schools are not ready based on reports form our members,” she tells City Paper via text.