Council Expands Access to Virtual Learning for At-Risk Students

Bill Also Creates Reporting Requirements

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Council unanimously passed legislation Tuesday requiring that both public and public charter schools expand the availability of virtual instruction.

The bill requires schools allow those students not eligible for the vaccine to learn virtually, where recommended by health care professionals because the student or a household member are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Previously a virtual option was only offered to DCPS students whose provider indicated it was medically required. Standards vary among charter schools.

Introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson and seven other councilmembers, the Protecting Our Children Emergency Amendment Act of 2021 also mandates an increase in the proportion of the student body subject to asymptomatic testing, raising it from 10 percent before Nov. 1 to 15 percent from Nov. 1 to Nov. 15, and to 20 percent until Jan. 15, 2022.

According to the bill, students in virtual learning streams will be considered as part of the LEA for purposes of enrollment and school payments, an important issue as student population is used to determine school budgets.

In a letter to Mendelson dated Oct. 3, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she read the legislation “with concern”, and argued that an on-demand virtual option for at-risk students applied to potentially thousands of students. Such an option would, she argued, lower the quality of instruction for students overall and that it would require hiring hundreds of additional teachers.

At the Oct. 5 Council Legislative Meeting, Mendelson clarified that the legislation does not create an on-demand option, but rather relaxes the standards of eligibility for the option that is already available. He estimated that the legislation would open virtual learning up to slightly more than 1,000 additional students.

Emergency legislation cannot have a fiscal impact. Mendelson indicated the executive was unwilling to fund further expansion.

“We think DCPS has the ability to pay for this,” Mendelson said. “The trade-off here is that we can’t go further with what we’re trying to do,” he said. “So if it turns out that there are a higher number of students, then it is on the Mayor.”

The legislation also requires that all schools inform parents whenever a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 and dictates detailed reporting requirements for asymptomatic testing.

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I) successfully pushed an amendment to the bill requiring a classroom-level notification, as opposed to a school-wide notification. She said that parents wanted to know if their child was breathing the same air as the person who tested positive for COVID-19. “That’s what builds trust and confidence, is giving families and staff the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves and their family members.”

Mendelson opposed the amendment, citing privacy issues and increased workload for school administrators.  “If the classroom is small, now we risk that we would be not just coming close to identifying or enabling parents to identify who the kid is, but it could lead to some stigmatization.”

Mendelson said the requirement would place additional burdens on schools.

Councilmembers disagreed that the requirement was an additional burden, noting DCPS had already made a promise to report at the classroom level, with Councilmember Christina Henderson (D) citing statements made at a Sept. 29 public oversight hearing.

Allen, who has two children in DCPS schools, said that knowing that there was a positive case in his school does not give a parent like himself sufficient information to make decisions.

“Do you really think that I’m going to trust that DCPS has figured out who my kid was hanging out with, maybe with their mask on properly, maybe not? No,” he asked rhetorically. Allen said the amendment was about enabling parents to make their best choices for their child.

Pointing out that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) said that that the way to remove the stigma around COVID was to talk about it.