DC Council Hears Public Views on School Reopening

"Almost every position imaginable shared with us," says Vincent Gray

724
Chancellor Lewis Ferebee speaks at the Jan. 21 roundtable. Screenshot: dc granicus

As of early the week of Jan. 18, about 4,000 students had accepted a seat for learning DC Public Schools (DCPS), and up to 15,000 students could attend in term three, said DCPS Chancellor Lewis. B. Ferebee told DC Council Thursday.

He made the remarks at a virtual public roundtable on the DCPS roundtable hosted by the council’s Committee of the Whole. Over six-hours, parents, teachers and officials asked questions and offered their opinions, many passionate, of the effort to make in-classroom learning available at DCPS schools beginning Feb. 1.

Ferebee said that in addition to a $31 million investment in safety measures, schools have access to both rapid and PCR testing and tracking and response protocols. Each school’s reopening plan can serve up to 30 percent of the student population, he said, depending on staffing and classroom space and was formulated by school administrators working with a committee representing the school body.

Many teachers on the call asked DC Council to delay the return to in-person instruction. Ward 7 DCPS teacher Laura Fuchs asked DC Council to delay school reopening until health metrics for phase 2 have been met in their entirety. (Currently, DC is experiencing high levels of community spread as indicated by daily case rates above 30 since December, and high hospital utilization by COVID-19 patients).

Ward 7 teacher Laura Fuchs speaks at the Jan. 21 DC Council Committee of the Whole roundtable. Screenshot: dc granicus

Fuchs also asked that DCPS allow time for teachers to receive both shots of the COVID-19 vaccine and to build immunity. In-person teachers and staff are prioritized to receive their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine starting Jan. 25 at Dunbar High School, with 3,900 shots earmarked for the purpose. The second shot is usually adminsitered three weeks after the first.

Asked why the latter was not a reasonable request, Dr. Ankoor Shah of DC Health said that vaccines were just “an additional layer of protection.”

“Even if everyone refused the vaccine, our recommendation is still that it is still safe to begin in person learning because of the safety protocols we have in place,” he said.

Many teachers expressed anxiety about returning to the classroom, saying they did not believe that DCPS had sufficiently taken into account the threat to their health and safety. DCPS teacher Zach Carroll said he had just returned from the funeral for his grandmother who had died of the Coronavirus. He said he believed the DCPS plan would cause a loss of teacher, after forcing educators and staff to return to the classroom with anxiety rather than excitement.

“It feels like top officials at DCPS and the chancellor do not care if I live or die,” Carroll said. “Let that sink in.”

Washington Teachers Union (WTU) President Elizabeth Davis told DC Council that the Union has filed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DC Public Employee Relations Board (PERB). Davis said the MOU notes 17 noncompliance issues, but the two most signficant concerns cited are the failure of DCPS to disclose data around family demand for in-person learning or to provide documentation showing school buildings are safe.

Parents presented on both sides of the issue, some asking that DCPS reopen and others asking DC Council to wait. One parent, a molecular biologist at Children’s National spoke in favor of reopening.  “As a parent, I see first hand that remote learning is failing our kids. As a scientist, I know that the data clearly supports that the safe reopening of schools is possible,” she said, citing data from Italian schools showing that only 1.8 percent of the 65,000 schools had an instance of COVID.

She said that her 7-year-old has been so overwhelmed by the anxiety of virtual learning that she is experiencing incontinence issues.

Julie Parker, the mother of a DCPS kindergartener agreed. ”I am just at a loss as to why schools continue to be closed for ten months with virtually no information about plans for widespread reopening, preparation for widespread reopening, support from the city to DCPS on reopening or how decisions are even made to remain open and remain closed,” she said.

Others asked DC Council to move to hold of reopening schools. Ward 6 Parent Sandra Moscow said that while she was concerned about social and emotional needs, she did not have sufficient knowledge of planning to feel safe sending her children to the classroom. “I do not understand how reopening decisions are being made, including what will trigger closing,” she said. “There’s no transparency, no discernible process, and in the end no trust.”

Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization (W6PSPO) President Suzanne Wells said that parents at the monthly meeting, held two days prior, expressed concern for teacher safety. But they also expressed reluctance to send their children back to the classroom as COVID rates rise throughout the District. “Families are making decisions to send or not send their children to school based on confidence of school safety plans, concerns with success of virtual learning or emotional well-being, and/or work and child care issues,” she said.

Equity was a major issue. Pointing out that DCPS has committed to in-person instruction for students furtherest from opportunity, Chairman Phil Mendelson asked Ferebee how he reconciled those goals with the fact that over half of families in less affluent wards —including Ward5, 7 and 8 preferred virtual-only instruction and that more affluent families leaned towards in-person.

Arguing that needs vary by family, Ferebee said that 43 percent of the students who have already accepted a seat were designated at-risk but when pressed by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I), did not provide a sense of the percentage of white versus black students returning in-person.

The themes of communication and transparency were repeatedly raised throughout the six-hour virtual roundtable. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D), father of two DCPS students, said that his family had been offered an in-person seat. The deadline to reply was 4:30 the same day as the hearing, but Allen said he had little information about specifics, such as scheduling. With two weeks before schools could reopen, Allen said the school told him that they were still ‘sorting it out.”

Ferebee said that while schools had selected the models for instruction, they remain fluid, partially dependent on staffing and the response to seat offers.

Reopening models. https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/

Allen said he was “continuously baffled” at how poorly parents have been included in reopening plans, even as basic as knowing their schedule to plan for childcare.

“When they have to be able to pivot that quickly,” Allen said, “the only parents who will be able to pivot that quickly are the ones who can literally afford private childcare to make it work,” which exacerbates inequity, he said.

Chairman Phil Mendelson told Chancellor Ferebee that communication “seems to be a flaw or shortcoming,” noting that many parents had testified that schools aren’t safe for in-person learning while public health officials like Dr. Shah said that they were. “DCPS officials need to confront and overcome that,” Mendelson said.