At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman introduced an emergency bill last week that would have given the D.C. Council and the unions representing school employees significant power in determining when it’s safe to reopen DC Public Schools for in-person instruction. But, as is his prerogative, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson did not include the bill on the agenda for Tuesday’s legislative meeting. He said during a press conference Monday that the bill contained more than a few half-baked provisions.

“I’m not interested in spending an hour fixing a bill,” Mendelson said. He cautioned that the Council’s role in public education is best carried out through oversight, not legislation.

Silverman said the bill is meant, in part, to foster more conversation about transparency around school reopening. She said some councilmembers expressed interest in the bill, though none signed on as co-sponsors. She needs nine votes to pass emergency legislation.

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee does not support the bill, which Silverman introduced following Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s initial failed attempt to reopen schools for thousands of students by Nov. 9. Reopening plans fell apart when negotiations with the Washington Teachers Union fell through, the Washington Post reported.

“We don’t believe that the legislation that was put forth is a smart way to address the reopening of our schools,” Ferebee said Monday as he announced his plan to bring up to 600 elementary students into school buildings this week. “We believe that we have done the due diligence with health and safety, and we have collaborated with our union partners along with our school communities.”

WTU President Elizabeth Davis supports Silverman’s bill and chided Mendelson’s obstruction in a phone interview.

“I am questioning his leadership right now,” Davis says. “Questioning whether he might be out of step with what it means to have oversight. I believe he has given far too much authority to agency leaders, and particularly DCPS’ chancellor.”

Davis says that on Friday, Ferebee told her the new plan for opening in-person classrooms this week included one occupied classroom at 35 different buildings. By Monday, Ferebee announced 29 buildings will open, some with capacity for up to five classrooms.

“It’s like a plane that’s being built as they’re flying it,” Davis says in response. “There’s no definitive information about anything.”

Silverman’s bill would have barred schools from reopening more than two classrooms in a school building. It also demanded that the mayor submit a reopening plan to the Council at least three weeks before students and staff would return to campuses. The plan was to include a list of medical and teaching staffs, a description of how students are chosen for in-person learning, and, among other details, a letter from “all the labor organizations representing workers in DCPS schools, demonstrating agreement with all aspect of the re-opening plan.”

Councilmembers would have a three-day window to object to the mayor’s plan, and if none did, the Council could approve the plan by a simple majority.

During a press conference Monday, Ferebee laid out the District’s plans for reopening classrooms in 29 school buildings, known as Canvas Academics and Real Engagement, or CARES classrooms. Up to 600 elementary schools students will attend virtual classes from inside a school building five days a week starting Wednesday, Nov. 18. DCPS staff will supervise students and patient care technicians will oversee temperature checks and symptom screenings. Teachers will not lead instruction in school buildings.

The administration’s plan to allow up to five reopened classrooms would have conflicted with a provision in Silverman’s bill. A memo from Silverman’s office circulated last week said the administration’s plan complied with her proposed bill. That’s because Silverman says she, like Davis, was initially told buildings would host one classroom, not up to five.

“That’s why we need more discussion, not less,” she says.