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With the start of school just 10 days away for DCPS and the rates of COVID-related hospitalizations for children nationwide reaching an all-time high, two meetings on school policy this week helped ring the alarm.

At a back-to-school news conference Wednesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser made it clear that the still-rising cases of the highly contagious delta coronavirus won’t stand in the way of in-person learning for all DCPS students, except those with the notoriously hard-to-get medical exemptions. In some of her vaguest remarks to date, Mayor Bowser said “a trend of concern” in the COVID case count would trigger her administration to do what’s “necessary.” 

Back-to-School Safety Measures, Co-Starring Bowser and Ferebee

Safety protocols, the mayor reiterated, would include weekly asymptomatic COVID testing for staff and masking in school buildings at all times other than when eating and drinking. She also said that anyone at a school who tests positive for COVID would need to isolate for at least 10 days. To avoid the mass class quarantines of last academic year, unvaccinated students and staff who are in the same room as someone who tests COVID-positive don’t have to quarantine as long as they’re properly masked, the Post reports

For students who do need to quarantine, DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said they likely would not get live virtual lessons: This simulcast instruction would be more selective than it was last year, he said, but didn’t specify further. Ferebee acknowledged social distancing is recommended but that it may not be possible in all cases, as teachers need to fit full rosters in their classrooms. 

What did parents, teachers, and local education leaders have to say?

At a State Board of Education public meeting later that same day, parents, teachers, and local education administrators clapped back at many of the protocols the mayor and school chancellor announced. Folks like Linda Zirkelbach, the parent of two school-aged children, echoed much of the public when demanding the following from all schools via live text during the meeting: (1) allow students to have lunch outside, (2) provide high-quality masks for students, (3) reduce the hours of instruction so there can be fewer kids crammed in hallways when switching classes, and (4) provide a virtual learning option. 

Voices were generally in sync around the belief that the city’s back-to-school plans constitute a form of child endangerment. Here are some of the biggest concerns, in the words of some of the testifying residents at the public meeting:

•Rising Caseloads Are Kind of Dangerous 

Steve Donkin, a science teacher at Cardozo Education Campus, broke down the disconnect between widespread fears around rising numbers of COVID infections and a spike in COVID hospitalizations for children and what he and others saw as a blasé attitude from the mayor as she doubled down on in-school learning for all at her back-to-school news meeting:

“At today’s press conference, Mayor Bowser finally said out loud what we already know: that fully reopening schools now is not safe, and that she doesn’t care. I quote, ‘we anticipate that there will be more cases.’ However, we were assured we shouldn’t worry because the … procedures in place are working splendidly, as we see in many charter schools where infections and exposures are being identified and proper quarantine routines are being followed.” 

Donkin hit home points on alarming health findings among school-aged youth with a double play of sarcasm. 

“Never mind that cases of serious illness, hospitalization, and long-term health consequences in affected children are on the rise—the kids are back in school buildings. And if we lose a few along the way, well, that’s the price we’re willing to pay. DCPS’s reopening plans such as it is, [were] clearly designed by people who no longer seem to appreciate the seriousness of the pandemic.”

Shantelle Wright, the DC Charter School Alliance Interim Director of Advocacy and Policy, expressed a need for “a citywide contingency plan should the District have an unexpected outbreak that puts schools remaining open at risk.” She said the alliance is asking the mayor to include charter schools when the city coordinates a protocol to tackle an even worse COVID caseload crisis. 

Social Distancing Isn’t Possible

Parents and teachers alike decried what they saw as a ludicrous premise that students would keep socially distanced throughout in-person classes and activities. 

The assumption is particularly unthinkable among elementary school children, said Tyesha Andrews, mother of a student at Plummer Elementary and a student at Jefferson Middle Academy and a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education. This group of kids, who do not yet have access to an FDA-approved vaccine, are “least likely to follow directions of not touching certain items, and staying six feet apart. Due to the number of children enrolled in all DCPS,” Andrews said. “I do not even see how social distancing will be possible in classroom, gym, and cafeteria area for middle and high school students.”

Donkin agrees: “Those of us who actually work with children, with all their quirky, delightful yet sometimes exasperating playfulness, defiance, and moodiness … know how unrealistic this scenario is.” 

Ward 2 DCPS pre-K teacher Katie Norton called the city’s policy (or lack thereof) for social distancing to the extent possible a “cop-out.” 

Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 member of the D.C. State Board of Education, drew on her visits to DCPS middle and high schools last academic year to express skepticism about social distancing: “You’re going to have 30, 35, 40 kids in a class with kids, you know, not even three feet apart and if somebody gets it, you’re going to have … only a few kids quarantined or contact traced. I really think that if we don’t have all of our students vaccinated, we’re gonna really be in trouble.”

The lack of hard and fast rules around social distancing in schools is at the heart of the problem, according to David Ifill, a middle school music teacher in Ward 5. It’s tough to enforce social distance when teachers and staff don’t have guidance for in-person instruction like sports and music. 

Ifill wondered aloud what safe instruction for instrumental music and chorus would look like. “How are we supposed to play uncovered instruments, how can we effectively sing, teach singers and instrumentalists, three feet or six feet apart?” he asked. “This everybody-decide-for-yourself stance is not working.” 

•Asymptomatic Testing is Testing Parents’ Patience

Folks in attendance at the public meeting took issue with the policy around weekly asymptomatic testing of 10 percent of students who have completed consent forms—in particular, with a liability clause in the consent form. 

Patricia Stamper, a Ward 7 resident and educator, explained that, as a parent of a DCPS student who has a pre-existing medical condition that would be worsened if he were to contract COVID, the consent form liability clause isn’t considerate of their reality. If Stamper were to consent to testing for her son to return in person, she would have to waive her right to sue the D.C. government if her son contracted the virus. 

Others noted the ensuing systemic effects of this clause on parents’ and guardians’ willingness to sign such a form.

“Urging parents to sign a testing agreement form that includes agreeing to relieve DCPS from any liability should their child get sick from COVID is not how you encourage testing. That’s exactly how you discourage testing,” Norton said. Later in the call, she cradled her two-and-a-half-month-old baby. 

What About Opt-Out Testing?

Another issue around asymptomatic testing was opting into testing instead of opting out, which researchers have found to make a major difference in both enrollment into a COVID-19 screening program and the overall rate of test completion. If testing of students attending in person who have no COVID symptoms was the default operation instead of requiring parents and guardians to sign the consent form, the test sampling would actually be random. And it might make all the difference. 

Valerie Jablow, a self-described “DCPS parent who finds it ironic that this hearing is being held virtually on the subject of students soon returning to school in person,” stressed that the DCPS testing plan involves only a fraction of the student body at each school. 

Jablow offered up a simple question: Why?

“It costs the same amount to have an opt-out only form, which would ensure a greater participation rate. As it is, we know that vaccinated people can have COVID and transmit it, so why limit asymptomatic testing to only the unvaccinated?”

Suzanne Wells, president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization, pointed out the vital benefit of an opt-out policy for both students and staff: Testing a larger number of folks each week would mean COVID cases could be identified quickly and proper action taken. 

It might also address another issue: the pressure on parents and guardians to monitor students’ symptoms without accounting for different life circumstances. Donkin brought up the case of students who leave for school without seeing their parents, who may be working or sleeping. 

Lack of Language Clarity

Yet another problem with the asymptomatic testing policy is a lack of clarity on health guidelines around the measure, according to Justin Lessek, executive director at Sojourner Truth Public Charter School: “The guidelines often say, like, ‘asymptomatic testing is not recommended,’ or something like that … So wait, are you recommending against it or are you just saying that you’re not recommending that everyone does it? Because those are … two very different things.”

Outdoor Learning and Lunching

No surprise, folks at the public hearing were all for students going outside for lunch in school. DC Health has encouraged schools to consider outdoor meals. That guidance is at the center of recent efforts to curb parents’ concerns about indoor eating

While outdoor classes were also a popular recommendation from folks who testified at the meeting, Raymond Weeden, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy, brought up recent surges in violence in certain D.C. neighborhoods as a complicating factor. 

“I love outdoor classes, but it’s not something we can do. We had a shooting at 2 o’clock, two days ago,” said Weeden, who is the father of a rising 10th grader at a charter school. “[Outdoor classes are] not happening, not around here.”

What Happened to ‘No Child Left Behind?’

Then there’s the city’s lack of commitment to virtual instruction for students not attending school in person. Some folks fear the ever-widening learning gap between White students and those of color in D.C. will only be exacerbated if students don’t receive virtual instruction. This comes amid longtime reports of Black-majority Ward 8 having the highest per-capita rate of COVID-related deaths in D.C.—a fact raised by Skye-Ali Johnson, a Ward 8 resident and a high school senior at Richard Wright Public Charter School.

“I keep saying that I love my kids’ school, but I think I have realized that they don’t love us,” said Aisha Jennings, the mother of two elementary school students in Ward 8, detailing how her school has responded to the possibility of her and other parents keeping their children home. Jennings said school officials told her that her children will lose their seats at their school and won’t get any books or work packages. “I thought it was ‘no child left behind.’ ” 

“Virtual option is not dependent on any kind of medical requirement — the only medical requirement for any parents should be … that they don’t want their children to be exposed,” said Paige Veliz-gilbert, a longtime Ward 7 teacher who will be teaching in Ward 8 this year.

“I am not a fan of simultaneous teaching by any means,” said Laura Fuchs, a DCPS social studies teacher,  “but I believe that it should be an option for students, until they are fully vaccinated, to protect their lives.”

Some parents said their fear over their families’ health is so overwhelming, they are strongly considering pulling their kids out of school. 

Matt Thompson, who has two children under the age of 12, was one of them. 

“My wife and I are lifelong public school advocates, public school products, we love public school,” he said. “We are now seriously contemplating removing our kids from public school and homeschooling them until there’s a virtual option. That tears my heart out, to be in that position.”

But according to parents like Thompson, if it’s a matter of life and death, life will always win: 

“We’ve seen the data, we know [COVID cases are] increasing, we know what’s going to happen. We are sending our children into an unvaccinated pile of germs and they’re going to come back with a very high likelihood of COVID. Not acceptable. COVID gets transmitted. So all these precautions, they’re helpful, but they will not keep our kids safe, especially with delta.”

—Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

This story has been updated to correct transcription errors.

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