Exterior of D.C. School
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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The D.C. Council and some D.C. Public Schools teachers are on the same page when it comes to the latest demands for COVID safety in schools. That means Mayor Muriel Bowser has some homework. They want the mayor to enable paid leave for COVID-affected school staff, supply more high-quality masks and COVID tests, require more asymptomatic COVID testing for students and staff, invest in support staff like substitute teachers, and provide more public disclosures around COVID school metrics and a plan for return to virtual instruction. 

These were some of the protocols councilmembers discussed during yesterday’s legislative meeting. The DC Caucus of Rank and File Educators called for such measures as part of their Week of Action that started Monday. 

The Council unanimously approved three measures included in the Returning to School Safely Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2022:

A 24-hour window for schools to notify families of any positive COVID cases in their child’s classroom (using families’ preferred method of contact)

A requirement for the city to report which schools don’t yet have a COVID strategy and logistics coordinator and a full-time substitute teacher assigned to help with COVID-related staffing challenges, both overdue Bowser promises from October

Required reporting on the percentage of students per school undergoing weekly asymptomatic testing

The emergency legislation, co-introduced by At-Large Councilmembers Robert White, Christina Henderson, and Elissa Silverman, as well as Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, echoes concerns and actions from a bill Chairman Phil Mendelson blocked earlier this month. Even before winter break, families and school advocates had been dismayed at a lack of clarity and consistency in city official’s decision-making process for DCPS online instruction.

One measure that’s not specified in the bill but is part of DC CORE’s and some councilmembers’ appeal includes making KN95 masks accessible for parents. Nadeau stressed the importance of children wearing the heavy-duty respirators to school to help families adapt to the omicron variant. Some DCPS teachers are crowdfunding to pay for KN95 masks, WUSA9 reports

Nadeau also addressed the need to ensure that eligible school staff get paid COVID leave. Reinstating paid COVID leave offered last year is high on many DCPS teacher’s priorities right now, but Nadeau acknowledged that there was only so much the Council could address with emergency legislation. 

Another demand is support for the substitute teachers in high demand to fill in during COVID-related absences. Yesterday Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced a pay raise for daily substitute teachers who work less than 30 days in a school year. The pay increase—from $15.20 to $17 per hour for this and next academic year—follows the compensation raise city officials gave long-term substitute teachers at the start of this school year. But critics of this most recent raise say it’s not enough. Substitute teachers have been rallying in front of the Wilson Building on Mondays as part of a “Day of Absence” call for better compensation, benefits, and protections, demanding to be on par with DCPS retirees incentivized to return to the classroom with much higher pay. 

At the legislative meeting, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto expressed concerns about the extra pressure enforcing such protocols would put on teachers and principals. She stressed the need for COVID coordinators to relieve some of the additional responsibilities. Likewise, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds asked White how the city would implement these protocols, wondering aloud whether personnel from other city agencies who are able to work in person would be able to help with COVID coordination tasks. 

“Ain’t nothing to it but to do it,” White replied. 

“What we’re trying to do here is frankly, push a little bit,” explained White, who is running against Bowser for mayor. “The COVID coordinators are months well overdue. The administration has said that they’re going to meet a 24-hour timeline for notifying families, but there’s been a gap between what … the administration is saying is going to happen and what’s actually been happening.”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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