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D.C. Public Schools will require a negative coronavirus test before students, staffers return

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee, pictured in September, said officials “believe it’s very important to elevate our surveillance at this time,” as coronavirus infections set records amid a surge of the omicron variant. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. Public Schools will require a negative coronavirus test for every student and staffer returning after the holiday break.

The requirement, announced during a news conference Wednesday, comes as city leaders continue their push to maintain in-person learning. City officials said the policy is one of the best ways to keep students and staff members safe during a record-breaking coronavirus surge.

Previously, school officials had spoken of a “highly encouraged” but not required test-to-return program — but that position shifted. In the past month, the increase in cases has forced 25 D.C. public schools to move to virtual learning.

“We certainly weighed this decision and believe it’s very important to elevate our surveillance at this time,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said.

D.C. Public Schools families should pick up rapid antigen tests at schools Jan. 3 and 4, and upload results to the system’s website by 4 p.m. on Jan. 4.

Students who do not meet the deadline will not be allowed to attend school when classes begin Jan. 5.

Staff members should pick up a test the morning of Jan. 3, during their regular reporting time. Ferebee said staff members should administer the test and upload results by 1 p.m. that day. Each staff member will also have access to a KN95 mask when returning to school.

Public charter school students also will have access to the rapid antigen tests, said State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant, but not all public charter schools are requiring proof of a negative test to return to campuses. KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network — has previously said it would require proof of a negative test from all students and staff members before in-person instruction resumes Jan. 4. Students and staff members will be tested at KIPP schools Jan. 3.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said in an interview Wednesday that the requirement was a good idea, because there’s a lot of angst over the coronavirus surge among parents.

“Requiring that everyone is tested begins to address that,” Mendelson said. “It’s reasonable that we want to take every step possible to reduce community spread.”

Ahead of the holiday break, over two dozen schools transitioned to virtual learning because of the spread of the virus among students and staff members following Thanksgiving. Some parents preemptively pulled their students out of school before the winter break, which started Dec. 22, because they were worried about the rising number of cases.

D.C. schools stayed open amid surges. Many students stayed home.

Online petitions circulated requesting the school system move virtually following the holiday break, similar to a move made by Prince George’s County Public Schools — where students won’t return for in-person instruction until Jan. 18. The petition further said that certain criteria should be met before students return, including requiring proof of a negative coronavirus test and supplying educators with N95, KN95 or KF94 masks. It also asked the school system to compensate educators who contract covid-19, without requiring them to use their sick leave.

Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union — which is part of the American Federation of Teachers — said she hopes the school system considers administering covid-19 leave, because there may be an increase in coronavirus cases following winter break. Many of the teachers are new and “don’t have a lot of accumulated sick leave,” she said.

She also said that her union was happy the school system was rolling out a test-to-return program and supplying KN95 masks to all educators.

Other D.C.-area districts are offering, but not mandating, on-site testing for students and staff before classes resume next week. Some, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties, will begin “test-to-stay” programs that allow unvaccinated students exposed to the coronavirus by a classmate to get tested regularly at school to ensure they are not infected. If they test negative, they are allowed to stay in school.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) referred to the school system’s effort to test over 90,000 students as the city’s “biggest data collection effort throughout covid.”

“It is very important that our families and kids participate, so after having two weeks out of the building, every school — at that point, even the ones that transitioned before the Christmas holiday — would be eligible to open,” Bowser said during the news conference.

But the effort shouldn’t end there, Bowser said, and families of students who test negative should continue to monitor for symptoms of the coronavirus because “we expect we’re going to be in this winter surge for a few more weeks.”

“Throughout January, we’re going to have to maintain vigilance about access to the building,” Bowser said. “And we’re going to do our part in the buildings, and we ask that families do their part.”

D.C. Public Schools’ leadership will host a virtual town hall at 4 p.m. Thursday to further address questions about its return plan.