Over 70 community members gathered at Lincoln Park on Friday evening to protest the DC Public School (DCPS) reopening plan. In attendance were teachers, students and parents, many holding brightly colored signs that read “Virtual not Viral” and “Teacher’s don’t accept incomplete work, why should we accept an incomplete plan?” and “We deserve better”.
The group marched around the perimeter of the park with their signs chanting a call: “Only when it’s” and response: “safe!” The protest lasted for more than an hour.
The protest came before a weekend of last-minute negotiations between the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) and DCPS. Reports indicated that those negotiations had been unsuccessful, largely hinging on the WTU insistance that teachers have the right to choose whether they go back in-person. DCPS has maintained that teachers should only opt out if they are at risk or living with someone who is.
By Sunday night, teachers had begun calling in sick for Monday’s live virtual instruction, part of a WTU work action. Families at Maury Elementary (1250 Constitution Ave. NE) received a notice from the principal indicating that due to requests for sick leave, students would need to move to asynchronous instruction Monday.
Elizabeth Nirgo, a special education teacher at Ward 6 Maury Elementary School, spoke about the challenges teachers are facing.
“I’m concerned with how the mayor and the Chancellor have rolled out the recent plans for reopening,” she said. “A lot of teachers who I’m here with were concerned at how this would affect student relationships with teachers increase class sizes, and potentially put students their families and teachers at risk,” Nigro said.
DCPS originally planned to bring students back for in-person learning as of Nov. 9. Those plans have been delayed indefinitely by DCPS, although Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said in an email to families that the CARES classrooms, virtual learning groups supervised by an adult at the school, would begin as soon as staffing is confirmed.
Nigro said that it was still unclear to staff as of Friday who would be going back in and who would be staying in the classrooms. She discussed a survey that was sent out earlier this year for special preferences and requests that teachers had about returning to the classroom or remaining in a virtual format for the rest of the year, but said teachers did not receive final word of where they would be when the reopening happens.
A Ward 6 DC public school teacher spoke to Hill Rag on the condition of anonymity about the challenges of the reopening plan. She said it was not in the best interest of teachers or students.
“I really want to support all the teacher and family voices saying that DCPS has not yet provided us with a clear plan for how they want to be safe,” the teacher said, “and not disrupt the classrooms that we spent so much time setting up and the relationships we spent so much time building.”
The teacher said the lack of a plan has been anxiety-inducing for both her and her colleagues and that they do not know what will be expected of them in a return to school.
“It would be nice if teachers and families actually knew what to expect as we are about one week out from their intended reopening date,” the teacher said. “The fact that these details hadn’t been worked out goes beyond just Corona but not just that –it goes beyond coronavirus safety, [to] just logistical safety.”
Another teacher who attended the protest spoke to Hill Rag and echoed the concerns of the individuals in attendance.
“It causes a great amount of anxiety and it’s extremely stressful while we’re still trying to do what we love doing, which is teaching,” the teacher said.
At-Large School Board of Education (SBOE) candidate Mysiki Valentine spoke to attendees about his platform and his stance of solidarity with those concerned about the plan laid out by the Mayor and DCPS chancellor.
“We were given an announcement that would upheave the lives of many teachers,” Valentine said. ”We are looking at a system that will put our children and our families at risk.”
Valentine encouraged attendees to keep fighting “until school is safe for all.”
“Continue to stand strong,” Valentine said. “Continue to fight against the status quo and make sure wherever you go you let people know: only [open] when it’s safe!”
Sarah Payne is a History and Neuroscience student at The University of Michigan interning with HillRag. She writes for and serves as an assistant news editor for Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.