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The Washington Teachers’ Union voted against authorizing a strike on Tuesday, prompting DC Public Schools to withdraw its restraining order against the union. DCPS filed a restraining order the day before some teachers returned to school buildings for in-person instruction. School officials were trying to get the union to stop deliberating on a strike. It is illegal for government employees to strike under D.C. law.

According to WTU President Elizabeth Davis, the vote was close: 38.87 percent of 2,058 members voted yes, while 44.07 percent voted no and 17.06 percent abstained. Not all eligible members voted.   

“I’m not totally surprised with the outcome of the vote. I did expect it to go the other way, however. I thought the majority of teachers would vote for the collective action,” says Davis. “Either way, we’re going to address the problem even more so, because I don’t want the chancellor to get the sense that because the majority voted to continue that he can sort of relax on the standard. No.”  

Many teachers have opposed reopening schools given the level of community spread in the District and officials’ handling of positive cases so far. Not all in-person seats at schools are filled, suggesting that many families do not feel safe returning either. The teachers’ union filed a complaint against DCPS on Tuesday, after a cosmetology teacher named Helen Marie White died from complications related to COVID-19, as first reported by DCist. The complaint alleges that DCPS violated health and safety protocols by not maintaining a safe environment at Ballou STAY, a Southeast high school where White worked, and failing to communicate to staff and students in a timely manner. A DCPS spokesperson told DCist that White was exposed to someone outside the school, and that DCPS notified the Ballou STAY community of a positive case on campus the day after they learned White tested positive.           

In a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee on Tuesday, the teachers’ union expressed concerns about health and safety protocols across all schools that reopened. Davis and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten signed the letter. Since reopening buildings for in-person instruction on Feb. 2, five schools have notified families that classrooms were returning to 100 percent virtual learning due to possible COVID-19 exposures. All those schools had “CARE classroom programming,” meaning those buildings reopened earlier than Feb. 2 for families who opted for supervised virtual learning.      

“We are educators and we believe that our schools can be safely reopened with the proper protections in place. Unfortunately, the number of cases in our schools over the past few weeks gives us great concern that the District is putting the health of our city’s educators and students at risk,” the letter says. 

A majority of cases where classrooms returned to remote learning to quarantine come from asymptomatic testing, says a DCPS spokesperson. In the school system’s view, that asymptomatic testing picked up a positive case so students and staff then had to quarantine for 14 days is the protocol at work. 

The school system has also invested more than $31 million dollars in coronavirus safety measures, so that staff and students could return to buildings. “Schools are safe,” said Ferebee before the Feb. 2 reopening, citing a report from epidemiologists affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says education settings do not see the kind of rapid spread that congregate living facilities or high-density worksites see. 

In the letter, the teachers’ union says it’s hearing reports that allege DCPS is violating protocols the school system agreed to follow since reopening buildings to staff and students. So now, the union is requesting a number of actions, including the creation of a “situation room.” The idea is that a group of people—members from the teachers’ and principals’ union, along with school officials—would exclusively focus on making sure protocols are adhered to once a school reports a positive case. Davis says the current communication breakdowns leave some teachers in the dark. The union also reiterated its demand for coronavirus metrics that would close all school facilities. Right now, the District government publishes metrics on its coronavirus website, but those metrics do not trigger specific actions. DC Health makes recommendations to the mayor, who ultimately decides how to proceed. 

— Amanda Michelle Gomez, (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

This post has been updated to include comment from a DCPS spokesperson.

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