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D.C. required negative coronavirus tests to return to school. Did it work?

Teacher Sarah Ruiz ties a ribbon indicating negative coronavirus status to the wrist of a student at Harriet Tubman Elementary in Northwest D.C. on Jan. 6. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

An unprecedented local public health experiment, which required every student and staffer to test negative for the coronavirus before returning to their D.C. public school after the two-week holiday break, concluded as schools reopened Thursday. Even with divergence in participation and results, students and teachers returned to their classes amid a record-breaking coronavirus surge in the region. The program could offer a road map for how school districts nationwide, struggling to contain viral transmission, can keep their doors open.

As students arrived Thursday morning, school officials used several methods to check test results and funnel children into classrooms. Some employed color-coded systems to separate students with proof of a negative test. Others implemented staggered arrival times for different grade levels and for students who needed to be tested on-site. By midmorning most students had been screened and teachers had begun instruction.

Nelisha Robinson, 30, was able to upload her 9-year-old son’s test result without any technical issues, but she brought the rapid test itself Thursday morning to his school, Tubman Elementary in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, just in case. Her son is very social and needs to be in classes, she said.

“With DCPS, even though sometimes they’re delayed on some things, when they do get it right, it’s right,” Robinson said. “I feel like they should have done it at the beginning of the school year.”

To get to this point, parents and school officials faced a number of challenges. The first was with testing: Families struggled to access rapid antigen testing as a winter storm left offices closed and roads unplowed. In the week leading up to the deadline, Washingtonians waited for hours in lines to get free tests distributed by the city. And glitches that blocked submissions to the designated website left many parents struggling to upload their results.

As of Thursday morning, approximately 39,000 of the system’s 50,000 students had returned their results, according to officials. Families reported 2,189 positive coronavirus cases; 672 staff members said they were infected.

Results varied wildly among schools, but with 5 percent of tested students infected and 7 percent of staffers, D.C. Public Schools decided it would reopen in person, with the exception of a single middle school where 11 percent of the staff tested positive, D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said Wednesday night. Several specific classes at other schools were also asked to stay home, he said.

Some of the data did not line up with the latest enrollment figures — showing more test submissions than students or staffers. Ida B. Wells Middle School, for instance, boasts 370 students but recorded 467 student results in the portal. The school system says it employs about 7,000 staffers, but 9,200 test results were uploaded from this group.

One educator said on Twitter that her school showed four positive staff cases in the DCPS database but the principal notified staffers of only two cases. She asked officials why. “The discrepancy is that one staff member has been entered 3 times for the same positive result,” one replied.

DCPS representatives did not answer a request to explain these inconsistencies.

After the portal to submit results failed intermittently Tuesday and Wednesday, DCPS sent out an email to parents advising them that students could bring a screenshot of their negative result or a signed note certifying that their result was negative.

Some teachers were frustrated with the District’s plan, saying it felt unsafe and unrealistic to open schools as cases continued to soar. At a Washington Teachers’ Union meeting Wednesday afternoon, many called on union leadership to take a firmer stance against reopening schools, angry that the union seemed to go along with the mayor’s reopening plan after the holidays without a fight. Students in neighboring Prince George’s County, where many D.C. teachers live, are attending class online.

“Did anyone push for closing school for this week????” a teacher asked, according to a copy of the written chats from the virtual meeting that were shared with The Washington Post.

Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons said she did not believe that was a fair complaint, given the union’s push to require testing before students entered the building and to certify proof of the results.

Some teachers told The Post on Thursday that staff and student attendance was low at their schools and that they could not teach their normal lessons. But teachers also expressed relief.

“I am very grateful for my admin team this morning. Very organized and smooth despite my anxiety,” messaged a teacher at a Ward 1 school who was not authorized to talk to the media and commented on the condition of anonymity. “… They were taxed with carrying out a plan crafted by central office and rose up to the occasion. While many of my students are absent, I am pleased by the competence.”

By Thursday afternoon, Lyons had heard from building staffers about issues with cleanliness and the distribution of masks, and about one school that reported few staffers or students in the early-childhood education programs. She said she expected to hear more after schools were dismissed.

“There have just been a few concerns, a few glitches,” Lyons said early Thursday afternoon, before the school day ended, “but I haven’t heard anything overall that’s concerning.”

D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) tweeted that she knew a test-to-return program “would be a logistical feat. Not many school systems have managed to pull off this kind of testing on a single day.” She praised the “commitment & work across the board happening to mitigate the spread of COVID.”

Briana Robinson, 27, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Excel Academy Public School in Southeast, said the testing program was a good step toward safety, but she said she was worried about people falsifying a negative test to get back in the classroom.

“It’s good, but I think they need to physically see them take the test,” Robinson said Thursday morning. “I’m just hoping people are honest.”

The next challenge was what to do about the thousands of students who did not submit their tests. DCPS announced in a statement Wednesday night that these children would be able to take rapid antigen tests, administered by parents or qualified technicians, on school grounds Thursday morning. Students would not be permitted to reenter their classrooms until the test concluded. Those who opted out altogether would be barred from schools for 10 days or until they submitted proof of a negative test.

Trivoria Ballard, 33, walked with her children to Tubman Elementary. She had taken her six children to their doctor’s office so they could get PCR tests, but those results take longer and her four Tubman kids needed a rapid test.

“I just feel like it’s too much,” Ballard said. “Why go through all of this to get the kids tested to see who’s positive or who’s negative? Why not have them just be virtual?”

But across the District, lines to test and enter seemed to move quickly. Rayshaun Willis’s daughter, a pre-K4 student at Excel Academy, was taken to the school’s auditorium to be tested Thursday morning. Willis, 27, said she wasn’t aware of the option to test beforehand but knew the school would offer an on-site test.

“It was awesome,” Willis said. “She was tested and in the classroom within 15 minutes.”

Many families picked up tests at schools this week to administer Wednesday. Yasmine Sandhu, 46, acquired two rapid testing kits Tuesday at Lafayette Elementary School, where her first-grader and fifth-grader attend classes. The school had three stations set up outdoors for parents to pick up tests and physically distance.

“I actually feel pretty confident in the way our school has handled it, in bringing kids back and being as safe as they can, and obviously in giving us tests,” Sandhu said. “Being in schools is almost the least of my concerns at this point.”

Children who tested positive for the virus could not attend class Thursday. Patrick Shaw, 41, was not surprised when his third-grader and fifth-grader got their results this week. Shaw and his wife had tested positive in late December after exposure to an infected friend who contracted the virus despite being vaccinated and boosted. But he wasn’t too upset. His children are well able to learn from home, he said. Neither had symptoms, and they were thrilled to escape some of the restrictive pandemic safety measures they have to follow at school, Shaw said.

“For example, with my youngest, her teacher makes her put her mask on while she’s chewing her food,” he said. “Which is absurd!”

After school ended, students, parents and teachers said attendance was noticeably lower than usual. Laura Fuchs, who teaches social studies at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington, arrived at school Thursday to find a mostly empty classroom. Of the 55 children she teaches, she saw only about 16 in school. Fuchs attributed the poor turnout to families’ anxiety over the omicron variant.

Antwon Gibson, 20, who is enrolled in a post-high-school job training program for students with disabilities run by DCPS, said he was one of the only students present Thursday. But the poor attendance did not upset him, said his foster father, Kevin McGilly, 56.

“If anything,” McGilly said, “you get more attention when there’s fewer kids around.”

Asked at a Thursday news conference about the variance between schools in admitting students, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said, “We have some real mini-mayors out there, and they are public school principals.” The principals understand their traffic flows and school community best, Bowser said, and they are “highly supported professionals.”

“I expect that there were probably a hundred different ways to get kids in the building, and I’m looking forward to figuring out what worked,” Bowser said.

KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network, with 7,000 D.C. students — revised its return from winter break plans even further. Students were scheduled to return Tuesday of this week but will now return Monday after submitting two rapid antigen tests. Each week, all KIPP students are tested through PCR tests, and that will continue next week.

Like school systems across the country, the District’s return to full-time in-person learning has been hampered by staffing shortages. Principals reported that understaffing on the city’s contact tracing team forced them to make uninformed and often inconsistent decisions about who was exposed to the virus and needed to quarantine.

In response, the school system announced in October it would spend $22 million to equip each campus with a full-time substitute teacher and a coronavirus response coordinator.

But the school system hasn’t hired the staffers. The chancellor said Wednesday that he expects the coordinators to be in school buildings in the coming weeks and “the first round of substitutes placed before the end of the month,” according to a letter shared by D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4).

The next challenge for the district is likely to come next week when more students are expected to show up for classes, said Richard Jackson, head of the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level school leadership.

The lower attendance numbers reported by some school leaders Thursday, he said, made it easier to test students who showed up at schools without proof of a negative test.

“Monday will be the real day where they’ll see if their systems really work,” Jackson said.

Michael Brice-Saddler and Perry Stein contributed to this report.