This afternoon the D.C. Council will host a roundtable on COVID and D.C. schools.

Starting at 1 p.m. on Sept. 21, Washington City Paper Audience Growth & Engagement Editor Michelle Goldchain will report on the discussion between parents and other stakeholders about the experience of these first few weeks of in-person classes during the 2021-22 school year. 

Along with public witnesses, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee and a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board are expected to testify on plans to mitigate any challenges they may foresee. A staff member from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will also discuss the preparation of both sectors for the return to school.

To watch the virtual roundtable, head to the D.C. Council site and follow along below.

What you should know before today’s public roundtable

Earlier this year, at a back-to-school news conference on Aug. 18, Mayor Muriel Bowser made it clear that the still-rising cases of the highly contagious delta variant would not stand in the way of in-person learning for all DCPS students, except those with the notoriously hard-to-get medical exemptions. 

The safety precautions taken ahead of the school year included weekly asymptomatic COVID testing for staff and masking in school buildings at all times other than when eating and drinking. Mayor Bowser said that anyone at a school who tested positive for COVID would need to isolate for at least 10 days. DC Health’s guidance on schools reopening and eating also included letting students eat in their classrooms instead of mixing in the cafeteria, staggering lunch or eating area by class, and considering outdoor eating options.

This Monday, Mayor Bowser announced that all DCPS, charter, private school, day care staff, and student athletes who are 12 and older will be required to be vaccinated by Nov. 1. There will no longer be a test out option for them, as reported by Washington Post reporter Perry Stein.

Since Aug. 30, schools across the District have returned to in-person instruction, five days a week. Before opening, the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School had issues with transparency on reporting positive COVID-19 tests and problems with the building’s HVAC system to parents. 

There has also been an uptick in positive COVID-19 tests in the DMV’s youth population, according to Dr. Sarah Ash Combs, the director of outreach for the emergency department at Children’s National Hospital, as reported by Washington City Paper reporter Bailey Vogt. DC Health director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt reported in mid-August that 10 percent of all new COVID cases in the city are among school-aged children from 5 to 14 years old. In order to increase the number of vaccinated children, the District has been offering incentives like gift cards and AirPods for those between the ages of 12 to 17.

Follow along on Twitter.

What parents and other stakeholders are saying at Tuesday’s public roundtable:

Originally tweeted by Washington City Paper (@wcp) on September 21st, 2021.

And the D.C. Council meeting is now live! Chairman Phil Mendelson says that if the meeting continues to 6 p.m., it will no longer be accessible on cable. Be sure to watch online (http://dc.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=17&event_id=4869) or follow this thread.

Councilmember Robert White says that he is “frustrated” that there is no virtual option. “There are too many people with compromised immunities or for other reasons do not feel comfortable having their children in school buildings…It is incredibly unfair to too many parents…”

Frazier O’Leary, member of the Ward 4 State Board of Education, says there are “dozens” of older school buildings in the city with leaking roofs, inadequate HVAC systems, and other problems. This is not an East or West of the River issue, he says. “This is a citywide emergency.”

Jessica Sutter, member of the Ward 6 State Board of Education, says “parents deserve public education choices that best meet the needs of their children,” saying virtual schooling should be an option.

Eboni-Rose Thompson, member of Ward 7 State Board of Education, says, “I really, really feel unsafe.” She conducted a survey with 200+ responses where 72% of respondents said they felt “somewhat uncomfortable” or higher with returning to school. She recommends virtual learning.

Natalie Rose Leistikow, a DCPS student, says that the school buildings should have been properly prepared ahead of time before students returned. They "were not ready," without working HVAC or filtration systems.

Crystal Bell, a parent, says “My only choice now is to send [my daughter] back to school…If you can’t prevent her from catching COVID, at the very least you should provide equity … I’m not willing to bet on you again when you failed.” She asks for virtual learning.

Lorenzo Bell, a parent, says, “Our children will not be attending in-school learning,” saying his and other families are “at risk.” “No real plan is in place for their continued education in the event they have to be quarantined … I’m no longer risking my children’s health …”

Dr. Nura Green Lane, a parent, says, “The irony is we are conducting this hearing virtually, but our children are in-person learning, who mostly are unvaccinated.” She says children must have a virtual option and that parents have clear communication and transparency from DCPS.

Tyesha Andrews, a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), finds it “foolish, impractical, unreasonable, and insensitive” to send children, who cannot be vaccinated, back to in-person learning, especially as the winter/flu season will be here soon.

Reneé Davis, a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), says DCPS’ COVID policies affect more than just the students, but the entire region.

Reneé Davis said she received a text from her 12-year-old son’s D.C. school on Sept. 3 that another student tested positive for COVID. She felt confusion with how to proceed for her 17-year-old, who goes to a school in MD. “It really drove my entire household into a tailspin.”

David Alpert, representing Ward 2 Education Council, said, “We should take all steps to keep schools open and minimize the spread of COVID.” He asks for outdoor dining, more frequent testing, and travel quarantine rules for children. “What we need are clear and consistent rules.”

Charles Allen says he responds to today’s parents and stakeholders as more than just a Councilmember, but also as a parent. “I’m very concerned about their safety.” He also says he feels “frustrated” because the “all or nothing” approach has made the ability to adapt harder.

“What’s happening so far isn’t good enough,” says Councilmember Charles Allen.

Elizabeth Callanan Mitchell of Ward 3 Democrats says that schools are being treated like businesses. “This administration seems to have ripped a page out of the Trump playbook.” She asks for more COVID testing, more teachers, and a virtual option.

Steve Beam, a public witness, says to the D.C. Councilmembers, “You are not doing your jobs.” He describes the roundtable as “a waste of time” and a “pity party.” “None of this is rocket science … We need your help … Be better.”

Sapna Pandya, a parent, says, “We can fix this,” asking for rapid COVID testing and fixed HVAC systems. “Would you eat or nap, unmasked, in the same room, full of unvaccinated people, Chairman? I don’t think so. We need to stop delaying and making excuses.”

Grace Hu of the Digital Equity in D.C. Education coalition says, "We continue to hear significant frustration" about the lack of functional, high-quality technology in D.C. classrooms. "Without strong oversight from Council, technology challenges will continue to be a barrier…"

Sharra Greer, Policy Director for the Children’s Law Center, urges the D.C. Council to hold a hearing specifically about students who are most vulnerable, including those at risk. “We need to know what are the plans to ensure they are given the services they are entitled to.”

Rachael Petterson, a parent, says, “In my younger daughter’s class, half the class and a teacher were quarantined due to a positive COVID case the first week of school. No one told us, and we learned it through a parent.”

Dr. Sandra Vanderbilt, a professor at George Washington University, says, “It simply does not make sense to re-open without some flexibility for families, especially since so many children (my own included) are not yet eligible for a vaccine.”

Curtis Leitch of non-profit Kid Power, Inc. says a COVID outbreak was reported at one of their partner schools during the second week of the school year. They were told that students would need to quarantine for 10 days, but he says they returned the following week.

Claudia Barragan, a D.C. resident, tells Chairman Phil Mendelson, “No one holds you accountable … You took part in infecting our children.” She says she is currently gathering over 100 signatures from immigrant parents who were “completely ignored” out of the process.

Councilmember Charles Allen asks Elizabeth Callanan Mitchell of Ward 3 Democrats where she has seen resistance on COVID testing. She answers, “I feel like we have encountered some resistance,” but she says it’s “rumors at this point.”

DC Charter School Alliance Founding Exec Director Shannon Hodge says one of the current challenges is public health guidance related to quarantine. “Charter schools are nimble, innovative, and responsive at their core,” but there needs to be more communication with city agencies.

Melinda Fuller, a teacher, says the contact tracing guidelines are “unrealistic.”

Melinda Fuller works with two students who are not potty-trained and require assistance. She says she wouldn’t be considered a close contact to the students because of assumptions that she would be 6 feet away. If either student tested positive, she says she wouldn’t be notified.

Laura Fuchs, a teacher, says she is “skeptical” about the health and safety of those at DCPS. “It is a matter of when, not if most of us will test positive.” She says there is not enough testing or enough transparency with parents.

“Teachers are human beings and many have families and don’t live in D.C. D.C. seems not to care,” says Laura Fuchs, a teacher.

Washington Teachers Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons says DCPS needs to prioritize hiring more teachers. A “critical teacher shortage” is resulting in classes “bursting at the seams.” “The fact is we need to spread kids out as much as possible,” says Lyons.

“Good air quality in schools is critical” to reducing the spread of COVID, says Washington Teachers Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, who urges that HVAC systems in D.C.’s schools be continually repaired and maintained.

Kathleen Coughlin, a teacher, says she’s been feeling “incredibly anxious” and “increasingly concerned.” DCPS has a “laughably narrow” definition of close contacts. There’s also an overall lack of data and few places to find information about positive COVID cases in D.C. schools.

Stephen Varhall, a teacher, shows a digital thermometer. It reads 85.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the classroom he’s sitting in. He shifts the webcam to the SMART board beside him, which he says is broken. There are also only four tablets for a classroom with 18 students.

“I encourage you … to work to get students and teachers what they need as soon as possible,” says Stephen Varhall, a teacher.

President of the D.C. State Board of Education Zachary Parker says he has received calls and emails from across the city about parents’ and teachers’ concerns. He learned of non-functional HVAC systems and says he heard of a football team being quarantined with no public notice.

“We cannot pretend that adding filters and requiring masks will keep the pandemic out of schools. In fact, the outbreaks and quarantines have already started … This is not the time to stay the course,” says D.C. State Board of Education President Zachary Parker.

Dr. Christina Grant, acting state superintendent of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, says, “We remain deeply concerned about learning loss … We know these are challenging times for our educators, students, and families.”

Dr. Christina Grant says OSSE has taken numerous steps to keep students safe. She says that all private, parochial, and independent schools were required to submit a plan to OSSE describing how they would safely reopen schools in accordance with DC Health and OSSE guidance.

Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn says this has been a “remarkable and challenging” experience for the community, but he says, “We do believe our students are safe in our schools.”

“From today, from witnesses, we’ve heard that we’re not entirely perfect in all these matters, but we’re continuing to work together to ensure that we make corrections and strengthen where possible,” says Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn.

“As of Sept. 19, we had over 90,000 students who had completed their stage 5 enrollment, which means they had been to school in person, and that represents an increase of almost 1,000 students from where we were at this time last school year,” says Dep. Mayor for Educ. Paul Kihn.

“We are also doing well with our health-related operations … though there are clearly areas for improvement … We are all on the same team,” says Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn.

Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of the Public Charter School Board, says, “We have seen the case rates increase across the region, and we know those who are not vaccinated are especially vulnerable. To address these factors, schools are doing their best …”

Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of the Public Charter School Board, says, “Ultimately, we know the most effective way to keep people safe and create a stable school environment is to increase vaccinations. Vaccinations keep students and staff in schools …”

Jamie Miles, chief of schools at AppleTree Public Charter Schools, says, “This has been the most challenging start of my 20-plus years in education.” She says she feels she is “falling behind” despite efforts to create an environment that is safe and comfortable.

“There is often misalignment with OSSE’s guidance and the DC Department of Health … I often feel as if we are sending teachers into a hazardous duty zone,” says Jamie Miles, chief of schools at AppleTree Public Charter Schools.

Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools Dr. Lewis Ferebee says, “DCPS is working as a community to create joyful and rigorous learning opportunities … I am proud to lead a school district with such a dedicated team.”

Chairman Phil Mendelson asks why there’s misalignment with OSSE’s guidance and the D.C. Department of Health, referring to the testimony by Jamie Miles, chief of schools at AppleTree Public Charter Schools.

Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn says that is not the case.

Chairman Phil Mendelson says his understanding is that there are inconsistencies and not every school is treated the same. Sometimes, an entire class is quarantined, sometimes not.

Dr. Christina Grant says not every school is the same, so they shouldn’t always act the same.

Councilmember Mary Cheh says that DCPS has not met its goal to test 10 percent of students for COVID. She asks when they might reach that goal.

Dr. Christina Grant wouldn’t say when they might reach their goal. Deputy Mayor for Educ. Kihn says there has been a “ramp up period.”

“Why don’t we require vaccinations for COVID [for all students]?” says Councilmember Mary Cheh, who described it as an “obvious” solution.

Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn says we should compare “apples to apples” rather than to other school districts like San Francisco.

Councilmember Mary Cheh says that she finds it “inexplicable” that the HVAC issues weren’t fixed before the school year began.

Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Dr. Lewis Ferebee says they are still analyzing the issues.

"The time for analysis has passed," says Cheh.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau asks if there has been any consideration for providing rapid COVID testing in schools. Dr. Christina Grant says, “We will stay the course” with the current vendor.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau says it seems like parents are stuck between a rock a hard place. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn says he has heard similar “heartfelt” testimonies on other occasions, but he believes students should be learning in person at schools.

Councilmember Trayon White asks what the process is to notifying teachers about students in their classrooms receiving positive COVID tests. Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Dr. Lewis Ferebee says that teachers should be notified by their principals.

Councilmember Robert White asked if there is a plan in place if virtual learning becomes necessary. Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Dr. Lewis Ferebee says parents should be assured that “we have the resources.”

Councilmember Robert White says he heard that students who quarantine are given a “packet” from teachers. Dr. Lewis Ferebee says DCPS has “moved away” from the “packet strategy,” and “the majority of our students” will be given a device, which teachers will use for communication.

Councilmember Brooke Pinto asks what percentage of DCPS employees are currently vaccinated.

Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Dr. Lewis Ferebee says approximately 68 percent of staff are fully vaccinated.

Councilmember Brooke Pinto says she would hope that DCPS increases the number of students who are tested. “It is one of the most consistent concerns we hear from parents,” she says.

Councilmember Charles Allen says, "We had months to prepare for this," regarding testing students for COVID. He asks who was responsible for creating the plan to reach the 10 percent goal.

Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee says, “There’s definitely collective responsibility.”

“I think we are losing confidence and trust from a lot of families,” says Councilmember Charles Allen.

Councilmember Janeese Lewis George asks if there is a willingness to expand the virtual option for students. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn says he believes they have made the best decision to maintain in-person learning. Dr. Lewis Ferebee adds that he trusts “the experts.”

At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson raises a question about at-home testing kits and if it's a "money problem" that is causing DCPS to not reach its goal to test 10 percent of students for COVID.

Dr. Christina Grant says, “Not to my knowledge.”

At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson says parents have communicated with her to say that DCPS is requiring exceedingly lengthy background checks for them to sign up to be volunteers. “The policy is not being equally applied across the District,” she says.

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