Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

With some charter school classes underway and the start date for DCPS (Aug. 30) quickly approaching, D.C. residents have lots of concerns about COVID safety in schools. And not just about masks or quarantine close-contact rules.

Some question how schools will make cafeteria eating safe, demanding funds for more staff to supervise students so they can keep a safe distance and eat outside. In a recent press conference, DCPS said that all students other than preschoolers will eat in the cafeteria, though later, in response to teachers’ and parents’ pushback, DCPS told WUSA9 that some schools were planning to use outdoor spaces

DC Health’s guidance on schools reopening and eating includes letting students eat in their classrooms instead of mixing in the cafeteria, staggering lunch or eating area by class, and considering outdoor eating options. DCPS schools are reopening with recently installed HEPA filters and UVC lights to help sanitize the air, mitigating the risk of spread during indoor eating. Some school districts are also shortening lunch times, Danny Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine who has studied COVID-19 data across 100 school districts, told the Post. He said that keeping lunch to 15 minutes or shorter could minimize the risk of COVID spread. Benjamin also recommends that students space out in the same assigned seats for meals each day and wear masks until they start eating.

Some have called for all local public charter schools to adopt Mayor Muriel Bowser’s policy requiring all unvaccinated D.C. employees, including DCPS teachers and school staff, to undergo weekly COVID testing. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and in D.C. are run by 66 local education agencies (LEAs), aren’t under any obligation to do so. In a letter addressed to the mayor on Thursday, all 68 LEAs representing 128 D.C. public charter schools committed to follow city guidelines requiring vaccination or weekly testing for school staff.  

Such concerns have only been amplified after DC Health director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt reported Tuesday that 10 percent of all new COVID cases in the city are school-aged children from 5 to 14 years old. 

What’s Going on With COVID Surveillance Testing at Schools?

Another pressing question is how student COVID-19 testing will work. During a call with the D.C. Council on Friday, city officials announced that the city will test a random sample of students attending in-person programming every week. The sampling will be 10 percent of asymptomatic students attending school in person who have submitted consent forms for COVID testing, said City Administrator Kevin Donahue in response to a question around consent from At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson. The city did not respond to City Paper‘s request about how many completed consent forms DCPS has now in time for this publication. 

The hope is for 10 percent of the DCPS student body to be tested, said Donahue. But the percentages don’t add up. For the city to achieve this feat, this would mean at least 10 percent of students attending in-person programming would need to have completed consent forms, and from those, all consented students (or, if more than 10 percent of the in-person student body, whatever amounts to 10 percent of the student body) would be tested. This path would contradict the guideline for 10 percent of consenting students to be tested. (Also, any time opt-in consent forms are involved, the “random” sampling isn’t random, points out Erin Roth, Director of Education Research at the Office of the D.C. Auditor, or ODA.)  

DCPS opted into surveillance testing, or regular testing of folks who aren’t experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, in late 2020, as a part of the safety protocol infrastructure for in-person programming. Under this system, students and staff participate in in-person activities while test results are pending. Tested folks get their individual test results sent via email, and DC Health gets direct reports. There are separate consent forms for symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID testing of students, translated into Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Amharic. While the 2021 asymptomatic consent form isn’t yet available, the 2020 version expired in 90 days (as opposed to the symptomatic consent form, which is good year-round), leading the ODA to raise issues around feasibility.  

Show Me the Data! (COVID Schools Testing)

A newly released ODA report about DC Health’s collecting and presenting of COVID-19 data from March 10, 2020 through April 5, 2021 holds both answers and more questions about student COVID testing. In March of this year, according to a testimony by DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee, the DCPS had asymptomatic consent forms for about 3,851 out of approximately 10,000 in-person students—just under 40 percent. 

Diane Shinn from the ODA told City Paper that this low return of consent forms shows that DCPS did not previously meet CDC or DC Health guidelines for surveillance testing that schools doing asymptomatic testing screen a random sample of 10 percent of students. Under the March data, sampling 10 percent of 40 percent of students with completed asymptomatic consent forms means only about 4 percent of all in-person DCPS students were even able to be screened for COVID while asymptomatic. 

Another issue the ODA raises is that DC Health doesn’t report certain numerators and denominators in its COVID data. DC Health hasn’t published the number and percentage of students for whom DCPS has consent forms or who are otherwise participating in symptomatic and asymptomatic testing in charter and private schools, or how many students and staff are tested weekly. 

These gaps also play out with basic COVID data the city already publishes regularly, as ODA auditors point out: When the city graphs out the percentage of COVID cases in public, charter, and private school categories, it doesn’t include the number of students and staff that were in-person in each category. When DC Health publishes the 10 schools and top five schools with cumulative COVID cases under each category, it leaves out vital information to compare schools: After all, some schools have been open longer and have more students attending. It’s tough to know what the data means without these numbers. 

In its audit, the ODA encourages DC Health to make the vital data around schools’ COVID testing available as schools reopen:

  • How many students are in attendance for DCPS, public charter, and private schools
  • How many, and what percentage of in-person students attending have completed symptomatic and asymptomatic consent forms on file
  • How many students and staff are tested weekly
  • How many positive COVID cases are identified weekly among both students and staff

What to Keep in Mind with DCPS Surveillance Testing

The unknowns with the DCPS return to school are murkier than ever. Potential changes to the asymptomatic student testing protocol are just one of them: Officials should announce this week what circumstances would lead the District to increase the student sample to 20 percent, according to Friday’s COVID-19 Council call. 

Roth asks folks to be mindful about the difference between enrollment and attendance at schools when looking at the data. This is particularly true with attendance at DCPS schools expected to rise significantly due to Mayor Bowser’s policy that all students attend school in person in the fall, requiring a doctor’s form for medical exemptions that many parents have found onerous and prone to rejection

And COVID testing at schools is just one piece of the puzzle, along with other COVID risk-reducing factors as more students return to school, like the rules around close contact in quarantine, air quality and masking in schools, and meal operations, Roth adds:

“I think parents, caregivers, families, and educators all are really looking for, you know, how robust are each of these mitigation layers. I don’t think people are looking for perfection across any one … So the findings of last year’s asymptomatic testing program highlight that, at that point in time, that program was not yet pretty good. It’s just one piece at a time when people are really stressed and really worried.” 

Jennifer Browning, the principal author of the newly released audit, says all the percentages and numbers around COVID data for schools amount to one question she keeps at the forefront of her mind:

“What makes this easiest on parents, and what helps people opt into testing? There are a lot of fears around the delta variant and how that’s affecting children … What makes this the best way to get the highest number of students into testing and screening testing?”

DC Health and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the two main bodies providing DCPS schools COVID-19 data as schools reopen, will have to ask themselves the same question.

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

This story has been updated to reflect a correction as well as new information from the DC PCSB: The entities that signed a letter committing to follow city guidelines requiring vaccination or weekly testing for school staff were learning education agencies (LEAs) that represented public charter schools, not the public charter schools. Since our publication, another LEA also signed onto the letter, which we updated. The story was also changed to reflect the most recent information on the number of D.C. public charter schools; the information on the DC PCSB official website was not up to date at the time of this publication.

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