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D.C. councilmembers clashed with school policy officials yesterday over school mask mandates and the viability of certain college majors. Here are a few of the more memorable scraps at the performance oversight hearing:
Building Maintenance Mess-Ups
Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen grilled the Department of General Services over its school maintenance failures. It didn’t matter that DGS officials, whose performance hearing isn’t until later this month, weren’t present at yesterday’s hearing. As City Paper recently reported, in addition to roofing and other issues at schools, DGS’s handling of HVAC updates in classrooms this year devastated air quality, an important component of keeping kids healthy throughout the pandemic.
“I have pounded the table before [with] DGS,” said Allen. “You would never set up something like this if you had to get work done at your house, in your home. Nobody ever owns it or drives it. So no one is the client. That’s a problem.”
Hierarchy of Subject Needs
At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson and D.C.’s State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant brawled over the value of studying humanities amid recent city incentives to get young people in STEM fields. Grant argued that D.C. needs more nurses and IT specialists, not African-American studies professors.
“Come on, we gotta be honest with our children,” Grant said. “It does not serve a first-generation college graduate to go to school and major in something that is not going to allow them to sustain themselves.”
Talking over Henderson, Grant touted research her office had done to match city-incentivized degrees with in-demand careers in D.C. But Henderson argued that the District also needed critical thinkers, writers, and speakers.
“It feels like we treat the humanities like the redheaded stepchild,” said Henderson. “What if I want to major in history? That doesn’t make me any less qualified to do the work. It actually might make me a better thinker.”
Masking in Schools
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman delivered a minute-long disclaimer before her question on D.C. school masking policy. To social media users, Silverman said, “I won’t be intimidated.”
Masking in schools has long been a touchy topic. But some folks in the District are now seeking to make sense of a school system with an indoor mask mandate when the city lifted the requirement for businesses earlier this week. That requires more dialogue between the two sides on the issue, Silverman said.
Last week, Maryland gave local school districts control over whether masks will be optional inside school buildings. In Virginia, fierce debates over school masking policy still surround the governor’s decision last month to make schools mask-optional as of March 1.
Earlier this week, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee ended the outdoor mask mandate on public school grounds. Charter schools in the District will be allowed to decide for themselves whether to make outdoor masking optional. But the issue of masking inside schools has no immediate end in sight. DC Health data shows only a quarter of D.C. kids aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated. Youth east of the Anacostia River likely have even lower vaccination rates due to persistent disparities in vaccine access and historical medical mistreatment of Black people.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education doesn’t make decisions around indoor masking, Grant explained at the hearing yesterday. OSSE only helps clarify DC Health guidance for schools when it’s handed down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grant didn’t give an ETA on new indoor masking guidance, and Silverman urged officials against keeping families in the dark on the pressing and polarizing public health issue. In nearby cities, the most disturbing facet of school masking decisions for families has been a lack of transparency, she claimed.
“[The decision] just came down,” she said. “And I don’t want that to happen here.”
Grant called for patience in waiting on health officials’ upcoming guidance, saying it hasn’t served the District well to get ahead of the DC Health guidance.
“This is a significant next step in turning the corner [on] the removal of the mask or the keeping of the mask,” Grant said. “I am confident that that guidance will be released as soon as possible. … It has been a long journey. I feel like we’re running a marathon one mile to the end, and, like, let’s just get there together.”
—Ambar Castillo (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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