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D.C. measure would require schools to tell parents about covid cases within 24 hours

A students enters Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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D.C. public schools will be required to notify parents within 24 hours if any student in their child’s classroom tests positive for the coronavirus, under new legislation passed by the D.C. Council on Tuesday.

The emergency legislation, which heads to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for her signature or veto, passed the council unanimously.

The bill’s introducer, Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), backed down from an initial proposal to require schools to establish specific numerical thresholds for operating virtually instead of in-person when plagued by a high number of coronavirus cases.

When would covid force D.C. schools back online? No one knows.

Instead, the legislation passed Tuesday includes other measures to improve transparency about the virus.

In addition to setting a deadline to notify parents of virus cases, the measure also requires the school system to update the council monthly on Bowser’s as-yet-unfulfilled vow to hire coronavirus facilitators and full-time substitute teachers. It also requires the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to give a weekly report of how many students in each school participate in the city’s asymptomatic testing program.

“Right now, schools are not able to get the information to parents quickly enough, because it has to go through sort of a long bureaucratic process, and we do have to cut that process down for the safety of our students and staff,” said White, who is running against Bowser in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary and has critiqued her management of the school system.

Robert White will run for mayor of D.C.

After Thanksgiving, D.C. schools saw a surge in coronavirus cases, leading several schools to temporarily shift to virtual instruction. Parents, teachers and staff complained about a lack of communication from D.C. Public Schools, saying case notifications to families didn’t include the total number of positive cases in the building, and sometimes, the communication was delayed by two to three days.

D.C. Public Schools has previously said it would start notifying parents of the total number of cases and would expedite the notifications.

Bowser pledged in October to hire “covid strategy and logistics coordinators” to help carry out case notifications, contact tracing and student testing in schools. But as of mid-January, school officials said they have had difficulty hiring any of the promised staffers due to a national staffing shortage.

District to hire more substitute teachers and contact tracers to help understaffed schools

White said during the council meeting that he intends to advocate for more measures, including bringing back coronavirus-specific paid leave time for staff when they or family members are sick — an idea City Administrator Kevin Donahue has told the council he is working on implementing.

“I think we see returning to schools as a binary choice — either we do it at any cost or don’t do it at all,” Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said. “But we need to continuously make adjustments necessary to contain and mitigate the virus.”

Local educators have also asked the city to bring back coronavirus leave and to provide KN95 masks for students. Meanwhile, Bowser announced Tuesday that she would raise substitute teachers’ pay, at a time when substitutes are in extremely high demand with regular teachers out sick with the coronavirus. Bowser said substitutes’ pay will rise from $15.20 per hour to $17 per hour so that teachers substituting for up to 29 days per school year will earn $136 for each day they work.

In other business, the council also voted Tuesday to extend until June the District’s moratorium on foreclosures for homeowners, which had been set to expire Feb. 4. Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who introduced the measure, said the city has yet to receive money that it expects from the federal government — about $50 million — to create a relief fund for homeowners behind on their mortgages similar to the relief the federal government already provided for renters.

The moratorium will last until the end of September for owners who apply for the relief money, Lewis George said. “They won’t lose their home before they have the opportunity to apply for the assistance promised by Congress.”

Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) raised concerns that delinquent homeowners who are not paying their condominium fees are burdening the condo associations that must continue paying for their utilities — possibly meaning neighbors in their buildings must pay significantly more to cover the water and other utilities used by those who are avoiding foreclosure because of the moratorium.

Lewis George’s bill to extend the moratorium passed unanimously, but Mendelson said he might offer amendments to address the condo problem at the council’s Feb. 1 meeting.

That meeting will once again take place by Zoom. The council agreed on Tuesday to keep postponing their return to in-person meetings until Feb. 15.

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