The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When would covid force D.C. schools back online? Nobody knows.

Families depart Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in March 2020, when the pandemic closed schools nationwide. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

D.C. Public Schools are gearing up for a return to the classroom next week that parents and teachers worry will be chaotic. The city will require a negative coronavirus test from every student and staff member before school resumes next Wednesday, a move welcomed by the community. But school principals, instructors and parents say officials have not provided enough information about what happens next — particularly if outbreaks and staff shortages force more schools to move online temporarily, as many did before winter break.

How, exactly, will the decision to close schools be made? District officials haven’t said.

“We’re not getting clear directives from the leadership,” said Richard Jackson, head of the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the school system.

Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said at a news conference Wednesday that he expects some schools will have to pivot online, given the surge in cases throughout the city.

“All of these decisions we do not take lightly,” Ferebee said Wednesday. “We will continue to move as quickly as possible and will be guided by the health and safety protocols, guidance from D.C. Health and health authorities, and with our student and staff safety in mind.”

Already in the academic year, 25 D.C. public schools have had to pause in-person operations because of the spread of the coronavirus. At times, they’ve had to halt instruction midday before the virus spread further in the building, as happened on Dec. 21 with Drew and West elementary schools. The night before the last day of in-person classes in December, Ferebee sent out a message at 8 p.m. to families: 14 schools would spend their final day online.

The Bowser administration says it will determine whether a school should shift to virtual instruction on a “case-by-case basis.” Ferebee has cited a “three-layer approach” the system uses: what health officials have said, how many students are in quarantine, and whether the school can continue to operate. DCPS, not principals, will make the final call.

But what numbers for each tier would place a school in the danger zone? Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said there’s no clear metric or threshold for when schools have to shift to virtual instruction, though council members have been asking “for well over a year.”

In neighboring Montgomery County, a decision will be made about whether to switch to virtual learning when 5 percent of students, staff and teachers test positive for the coronavirus in a 14-day period, officials have said.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent Ferebee a letter on Dec. 16, before the winter surge, wondering whether DCPS was ready to pivot to virtual learning on a total school or systemwide basis “in the case the pandemic takes a turn for the worse.”

The answers that council members have gotten are not “clear answers; they’re not even unclear answers given in an assuring way,” Mendelson said in an interview Wednesday. “The week before Christmas was not handled very well.”

Ferebee’s Dec. 23 response said the school system was working with health officials to transition “a limited number of schools on a case-by-case basis.” But the letter did not provide specific information about when a school might need to pivot.

In an interview Thursday, Ferebee said D.C. Public Schools will confer with principals and instructional superintendents — who manage clusters of schools — to understand how many students and staff will be out of school and whether certain roles can be easily covered by others. He said schools with a high rate of infection would be placed on “watch lists” for closer monitoring — and that his agency hoped to gather that information earlier in the day, though Ferebee did not say by when.

“We don’t want to create an environment where the vast majority of students for a grade level or school are out, and our primary mode of instruction is in person,” Ferebee said. He added: “Ultimately, I’m going to be a decision-maker.”

Many of the schools that had to move to virtual learning ahead of the winter break couldn’t continue operations with so many staff and students in quarantine. Roughly 650 D.C. Public Schools staff members tested positive for the coronavirus between November and December, including roughly 60 staffers at the end of December when there was an increase in citywide cases, City Administrator Kevin Donahue said.

Asked this week if any schools would probably return to virtual instruction come Wednesday, after the mandatory round of testing, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said “we won’t know” until all of the test results are in. Staff members are expected to submit their test results by 1 p.m. Monday; students are expected to file theirs by 4 p.m. Tuesday. The effort is the city’s largest data collection effort to date throughout the pandemic, Bowser said. For the upcoming semester, Ferebee pledged that families would be notified if their school had to transition to virtual learning by 8 p.m. each evening, unless “there are any extenuating circumstances.”

But with delays getting lab results and fewer readily available tests, some worry about the plan’s feasibility and report concerns of the school’s difficulties in collecting the data and a spotty record of communicating the results quickly. Throughout the pandemic, mid-level leadership in schools have been the notifiers of coronavirus cases and acted as contract tracers, “which was overwhelming work,” said Jackson, the union head. Now, they’re acting as test monitors by making sure their school population is coming in to get tested before they set foot in a school building — at a time when they don’t always know each morning whether they’ll have enough staff to run the school. Principals aren’t even sure when they’ll find out how many cases they have in their schools, he said.

“They’re trying to build a plane and fly it at the same time,” Jackson said.

Additional staff members, which the city pledged in October to bring on board, are still “in the clearance process” and will probably begin arriving in January, Ferebee said. According to the city, they will “prevent, screen and inform.” Without them, students and teachers have not always had access to the most up-to-date information.

Teachers have often found out from their colleagues instead of their employer who is testing positive for the coronavirus before an official case notification, said Aggie Payton, a special-education teacher at Whittier Elementary.

“This is why a lot of people have been quitting or really been upset with this whole covid procedure,” Payton said.

Woodrow Wilson High School’s student newspaper, the Beacon, reported before the break that interim principal Gregory Bargeman said more than 50 cases had been reported to the administration, “but due to a lag in DCPS’s case-reporting system, the school community was only notified of 17 of them.”

Ferebee said last week that “close contact notifications will be sent to all students and staff in the classroom of a positive reported case if more detailed contact tracing cannot be completed expediently,” and that community notifications “will now be modified to note the total number of new cases reported within a school building.”

Parents, too, have been frustrated because they don’t see a closure coming and can’t prepare in time, said Council member White, who has one child enrolled in a D.C. public school.

“We’re trying to make decisions as parents that’s in the best interest of our children, and we don’t have the information we need to do that,” White said.