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Challenges in first weeks of school in D.C.: Testing, quarantining and contact tracing

D.C. public schools are back in person with some exceptions, but parents and guardians are debating whether it’s safe as the pandemic continues. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

After the first weeks of school, some D.C. parents remain frustrated by how campuses are handling coronavirus quarantines and data shows the District has failed so far to reach its goals for testing students for the virus.

Currently, around 1,300 D.C. Public Schools students and 220 school system staff members in the 52,000-student system are in quarantine, according to city data. Quarantine numbers for the city’s charter schools, which educate about 40 percent of the city’s public-school students, aren’t available in a centralized place.

While D.C. Public Schools has contract tracers, the task of determining who must quarantine after potential exposure to the virus has, on some campuses, fallen to principals, who are already strained, said Richard Jackson, head of the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the school system. Jackson said principals are then bombarded by emails from frustrated parents, who believe the city should be moving faster to notify the community of a positive test.

Jackson said that the school system has informed him that it is hampered by an inadequate number of contact tracers.

D.C. Public Schools said it has increased its staff since the start of the academic year and now has 10 full-time contract tracers, plus additional staff from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Officials said they are continuing to add people to the team.

The bulk of the approximately 350 positive student and staff virus cases in the first few weeks of school have been detected by families on their own, and D.C. Public Schools officials say some of the delayed notifications occur because people do not always immediately report them to schools.

Charter schools can opt into the District’s Department of Health’s contact tracing program, or implement one of their own. KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network with more than 7,000 students — has six contact tracers, according to spokesman Adam Rupe.

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Based on guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if a student is properly masked and at least three feet from an infected classmate who was also masked, they are not considered a close contact and do not need to quarantine. Unmasked people, or those who are within three feet of someone with the virus, need to quarantine only if they were near that person for at least 15 minutes.

School officials have said the guidelines could mean that fewer students may be sent home. Still, some classrooms in the District have been quarantined.

“If you are a principal in a school and you are not sure [of who has been exposed], you have to quarantine everyone,” Jackson said. “What else are you supposed to do if the external system is not working efficiently?”

Kalia Hilton, who has four children enrolled at a Southeast Washington charter school, said she has been confused by the quarantine protocols, including times when one child was asked to quarantine but their siblings weren’t. When her 7-year-old son contracted the virus this month, she said the school told her again to bring her other children, who had no symptoms and tested negative for the virus, into school to avoid accruing unexcused absences.

She said the quarantines have been unexpected and burdensome. One morning, after she paid for an Uber to get her children to school and returned home, she got a call that her fourth-grader needed to be quarantined because someone in his classroom tested positive.

“And now I wanted to pull my fifth-grader because he is always near the fourth-grader,” said Hilton, who also has an infant. “They use the same hallway.”

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On a weekly Friday phone call between the D.C. Council and the Bowser administration, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) questioned why health guidelines call for siblings of quarantined students to remain in school.

“I think this is bananas,” Allen said. “It defies logic to me.”

“If there is a determination from DCPS or a medical professional indicating the need for a student to quarantine, then the absence(s) will be excused,” the school system said in a statement. “However, if a parent decides to keep a student out of school, and an appropriate school official or medical professional did not direct the exclusion, the absence(s) will be unexcused.“

The District publishes coronavirus data online and, based on that information, the number of infections in schools so far this year is relatively low.

But the amount of information available varies by type of school.

A “K-12 Schools data” dashboard showed that 356 coronavirus cases were reported among students, teachers and staff in D.C. public, charter and private schools between Aug. 1 and Sept. 8. It also offers school-by-school data, including the number of symptomatic vs. asymptomatic cases. But if a campus has reported fewer than five cases, the District does not show that breakdown to protect privacy, according to the dashboard.

The city’s website also includes a separate link showing the number of D.C. Public Schools students and personnel currently in quarantine and publishes the results of its virus testing within the traditional public school system and some charters that have opted into the program.

But similar information on quarantines is not available for charter schools.

To monitor the infection rate in schools, the Bowser administration says it aims to test 10 percent of students at every traditional public school and participating charter every week as part of an asymptomatic testing program. So far, data indicates it has fallen short of that goal.

According to city data, the city tested 4,080 students the second week of the academic year. Most of these were asymptomatic testing program, though the city said some of the students were tested because they had symptoms in the classroom. The city said it would break down these numbers by asymptomatic and symptomatic testing in the coming weeks.

The city also said that 4.5 percent of the tests were deemed inconclusive, in many cases because a child did not provide enough saliva for the spit-based test.

Last spring, the city also likely fell short of its testing goal, potentially testing just 4 percent of students who were in-person, according to a report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor. The city previously required parents to consent to testing, but it shifted last month to automatically put students in the program and allow families to opt-out.

Charter schools can opt into the testing program or implement one of their own. KIPP DC and Friendship are testing every student each week as part of a pooled testing program.

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Parents and school staff members say that, particularly for younger children, it takes them a long time to complete the test, and health workers run out of time before finishing 10 percent of the student body.

Asymptomatic adults and students are not required to quarantine if they are exposed to the virus. But it’s on families to inform schools that a child is vaccinated.

The city has not yet publicly compiled vaccination rates for schools and staff. By Sept. 19, all school staff must be vaccinated or be tested weekly for the virus. While the majority of school staff is believed to be vaccinated, unvaccinated staff members in the traditional public and charter schools have caused students to quarantine.

In Southeast, the entire sixth grade at Johnson Middle — 129 students — was placed in quarantine. The D.C. school system released few details about the quarantine, but at a city meeting last week focused on “healthy schools,” a commissioner on that committee said that an unvaccinated staff member caused the mass quarantine.

A group of parents and teachers has criticized the city for not conducting more testing and releasing more and and has called on the city to allow more students to participate in full-time virtual learning.

“The approach that has been taken this fall seems to be that we have decided it is best for every student to be in person this fall no matter what,” said Robin Appleberry, a mother of a fourth- and seventh-grader in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington. “And we are going to give you as little as information as possible so trust us.”