Today’s the first day of school for DCPS and many public charter schools, and thousands of parents aren’t feeling safe with back-to-school safety precautions (or lack thereof).

A petition signed by 1,410 people at the time of this publication protests a lack of support from the city for a virtual option amid loose COVID safety protocols in D.C.’s public schools. Measures that concern parents include no required quarantining for unvaccinated students and staff who are in the same room as someone who tests COVID-positive, so long as they’re masked; no simulcast instruction except for those students who have approved medical waivers, a task parents have found onerous to navigate; and social distancing that’s recommended but that Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee has said may not be possible in all cases due to class size. Citing data on the recent rise of cases and the rates of hospitalizations among children, the petition calls for Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ferebee to provide a virtual learning option for families until children under the age of 12 can be vaccinated. 

“Parents are being forced into an impossible situation, with many in distress, unable to sleep, crying … It’s heartbreaking,” Martine K. Miller, a member of the concerned DCPS parent group, wrote City Paper via email.  

Norma from Ward 2 (whose last name is omitted due to privacy concerns for her son), despite having a vaccinated son and allowing him to attend in-person classes, is one of these concerned DCPS parents. The mother of a new ninth grader, Norma fears for the safety of both her child and her husband, who was infected with COVID-19 twice pre-vaccination and still has lingering symptoms, like arthritis. The transmissions happened despite their family being meticulous about safety, she says. 

Though all three family members have been vaccinated, the (albeit extremely low) risk of breakthrough cases still poses an uneasy unknown. For families with kids under the age of 12, the danger of also infecting family members who are immunocompromised looms large. 

“It’s very, very concerning, this situation with the children,” Norma told City Paper in Spanish. “I’m terrified that children won’t be careful about putting on and taking off their masks. They’re young. I really hope that teachers can help them out and take their time to do so—that they take it to heart and think, ‘What would I do if these were my kids?’ And that they take care of them. Because it’s a pandemic, and [many of] these kids aren’t vaccinated.”

On a call between councilmembers on Friday, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie reflected a similar concern around masking when he asked why schools aren’t investing in providing masks to students to prevent the wearing of loose-fitting masks. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said that the most protective masks, such as N95s, are “not designed to be, you know, worn by the average person for multiple hours … so we want students to wear a mask that they will tolerate … so those cloth-fitting masks, surgical masks are likely the best option.”

Norma’s family has planned for the safest back-to-school arrangements they can. Apart from vaccinating her son, she and her son pledged he would take extra safety measures and avoid crowded areas. He’ll come to school armed with disinfectant and extra masks. He’ll bring his own packed lunch to avoid the crowded cafeteria lines. He won’t partake in any athletic activities or after-school programming. And instead of taking public transportation, her son will walk the 30 to 45 minutes to and from his new school, the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, to minimize exposure. 

Despite being excluded workers and thus not receiving government pandemic aid or unemployment benefits, Norma and her husband (who survive on his income manufacturing channel letters) saw car-related expenses as part of a life-or-death decision. They have committed to using her husband’s car for all transportation other than walking whenever he’s not using it for his job. 

Norma describes the start-of-school experience as being between a rock and a hard place.

Norma says she knows some parents have been at the forefront of the fight for in-person classes to resume, but not because they don’t fear COVID-19. Many of them have witnessed the depression, anxiety, obesity, and other health conditions long periods of pandemic-related isolation have fueled. Norma’s son suffered depression through the pandemic and went to therapy regularly for four months. And for parents who haven’t been able to work because of child care needs, schools reopening gives parents new possibilities to get a new job or expand their work hours, Norma points out. 

Moreover, at-home instruction just isn’t the same. Students’ attention spans have been pushed to their limits since classes became virtual a year and a half ago.  

City officials agree about the importance of in-person learning, but not so much about the perils of in-person classes. 

“We believe that in-person learning is safe for young people,” said Kihn during Friday’s council call. “We have certainly seen across the country and locally in our data, that there is a consequence for our young people being out of school.”

Responding to concerns about the greater opportunity for transmission during indoor lunches, the deputy mayor concurred that outdoor eating would be a good idea, but maintained that indoor lunches aren’t necessarily unsafe and that the city wouldn’t be issuing a mandate for outdoor lunches. 

“Schools have been taking lots of precautions with our cafeteria, their seating distances between kids when their masks are off, seating charts and so on,” he said. “So we think we’re in a good place with this as we do continue to receive the equipment necessary for some schools that have requested it.” HEPA filters are one such piece of equipment being touted by the city as a safety measure. 

Yet many parents’ concerns are far from assuaged. According to Miller, the concerned DCPS parent group isn’t receiving replies from the mayor and chancellor despite parents’ (and teachers’) efforts to engage in dialogue. Miller wrote that the group is coming together to pursue legal options, including for “purposeful child and community endangerment.” 

When Norma and her husband drove their son—a bundle of nerves and excitement—to school at 8 a.m., they saw long lines for elementary-school student checkpoints at various schools and equally long lines of cars blocking the street as they passed by. 

“It’s a challenge,” Norma told City Paper. “We won’t know what’s going to happen with kids who can’t be vaccinated and those [12 years and older] who won’t get vaccinated.”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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