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

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Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s back-to-school news meeting failed to reassure parents with promises of rather vague emergency measures in the event of a worsening COVID-19 caseload crisis (“a trend of concern” in the COVID case count would trigger her administration to do what’s “necessary,” she said). 

To recap, here are some of DCPS’ safety protocols: weekly asymptomatic COVID-19 testing; masking for students and staff other than when eating and drinking; a 10-day isolation mandate for anyone at school who tests positive for COVID; no quarantining for unvaccinated students and staff who are in the same room as someone who tests COVID-positive, as long as they’re masked; no simulcast instruction for quarantining students. 

Plus the vaguest of them all: social distancing that’s recommended but that may not be possible in all cases, according to DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee, who spoke at the same back-to-school news briefing.

The press conference chat had the opposite effect: At a public State Board of Education meeting later that day, parents, teachers, local education administrators, and even students slammed many of the protocols (or lack thereof) that the mayor and school chancellor announced. Concerns about returning to school heightened for public charter school parents as well when, just two days ago, parents found out the real reason their school’s Meet the Teacher back-to-school event switched from in-person to virtual: COVID-positive results in three staff members working in-person at the school.   

And yet nothing says “back to school” quite as much as a backpack drive. Backpacks are both a status symbol and a school-lifelong companion, and in the COVID era they mean a lot more than that. 

In addition to their mental preparation for in-person classes, teachers, families, and community leaders have been physically preparing themselves for what the return to school means for low-income households and under-resourced schools. In recent weeks, back-to-school drive flyers, calling for donations and event support, circulated in D.C.-area community events, social media, and your friendly neighborhood news outlets. 

And folks showed up. 

On Sunday, when more than a thousand students and their families waited in line to get their back-to-school health checks and immunizations at a Falls Church clinic, it wasn’t just a visit from Washington Football Team linebacker Cole Holcomb that sweetened the hours-long wait: Backpack give-aways were also a main attraction. 

But Ward 8 really stole the show with the frequency of events and community turnout. 

Councilmember Trayon White channeled feel-good family vibes at the back-to-school event he hosted last Saturday with a “We Are Family”-themed video. Staff members and 20 volunteers gave away backpacks and school supplies to more than 2,000 students, according to the Office of Councilmember Trayon White. 

For White, the event was a lot more than a book bag giveaway—it was also an opportunity to connect the community with each other and with local resources as Ward 8 faces dual safety concerns: the highest per capita COVID-related death rates and the highest crime rates for gun violence. The book bag drive is the culminating event for White’s 40 Days of Peace initiative, a response to a surge in crime disproportionately affecting the majority-Black neighborhoods in the District. 

Community-based organizations and health care agencies connected folks to health screenings, mental health services, trauma-related services, utility assistance, educational information, and COVID vaccinations. Apart from book bags, the councilmember’s staff and volunteers gave away new shoes, school supplies, and uniform vouchers to residents. The office also gave some backpack love to other back-to-school community events in the ward.

Hustling for Backpacks

At one of these community events, in James Creek, the book bag giveaway almost didn’t happen when a business hired for the backpack order backed down at the last minute, violence interrupter Dodson Robey told City Paper. “The event is up in the air [for] tomorrow because we supposed to have book bags and one of the distributors back[ed] out so I have been scrambling around to see what I can get,” Robey wrote in a text on Aug.13. 

Robey hustled to keep the event going, knowing personally from his daily interactions with this community how much the resources would mean to families in the neighborhood. He connected with a violence interrupter at “Cure the Streets,” who donated 20 bags despite the short notice. Dodson matched with 20 more book bags and journals he bought out of his own pocket, as well as orange and blue hand towels, black and white headbands, masks, and notebooks. He had designed and ordered the “Let It Go”-emblazoned hand towels, headbands, and even some T-shirts as a reminder to de-escalate tensions that may lead to gun violence. Training Grounds, contracted under the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, gave 50 bags of school supplies. 

The show went on to a good turnout, as it did with back-to-school events like that of violence interrupter “Indy B” on Aug. 21 and 25. The giveaway flowed with music and featured free activities like face-painting, a moonbounce, and local food. These back-to-school events, like that of 40 Days of Peace, were about much more than backpacks: reminding families that fun and community spirit are still very much alive during these stressful times.

Buena Vista Terrace SE will be holding a backpack drive this Sunday, Aug. 29 from 12 to 5 pm. Other upcoming back-to-school supplies giveaways in the DMV take place this Saturday, Aug. 28 and into the first week of September. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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