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D.C. schools must report on classroom door locks, faulty HVACS under proposal

The bill would also require the city to report the percentage of students not up to date on their routine vaccines at each school

Eastern High School custodian Raymond Woodfork displays one of the air filters used at the school in D.C. on Jan. 22, 2021. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The D.C. public school system would have to report to lawmakers the percentage of doors in each school building that properly lock and the working status of every air conditioning and heating system ahead of the upcoming academic year, under a bill approved unanimously this week by the 13-member D.C. Council.

Council members said they wanted to avoid a repeat of last August, when teachers and parents returned to classrooms and reportedly complained to their representatives of broken HVAC systems and other faulty equipment. After the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., this spring renewed discussions about school safety, some teachers and parents in the District reported that locks on building and classroom doors were broken.

The legislation would also require traditional public and charter schools to report the percentage of students who have not received the routine immunizations required to attend schools. Many families missed doctor appointments during the pandemic and about a quarter of students are not up to date on their non-coronavirus vaccines, according to city officials.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wrote in a letter to the D.C. Council ahead of the vote Tuesday that she is against the passage of this law, saying it is cumbersome, duplicative and unnecessary. For example, the Department of General Services, which oversees the public school facilities, publishes online the requests it receives to repair HVAC systems. Bowser must still sign the bill before it takes effect, though she rarely vetoes bills.

“This will unfortunately duplicate work and cause unnecessary reporting and tracking issues,” Bowser wrote in her letter, shared with The Washington Post.

Specifically, under the bill, DGS would have to report to the D.C. Council in an “editable” table the condition of all HVAC systems at every school. For every HVAC system that is not working, the agency would have to say whether it has alternative plans to provide cooling or heating in affected classrooms. The first day of school is Aug. 29, and the city would have to provide this report by Aug. 19.

The agency also would have to report the number of mobile and permanent air-filtration systems on-site. These reports would be made public.

The safety reports, which would include the percentage of doors that do not lock securely, would remain private.

“I do not want to be at the point where we were last year the week before school starts, where I am doing school tours and we are not ready,” said council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who introduced the bill with Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “We have to be proactive.”

George said she had initially wanted the bill to require the school system to publicly report how many potential school employees, contractors and volunteers are stuck in the security clearance process. The Post reported that the school system’s backlogged background check process prevented critical tutoring and after-school programs from operating at full capacity because so many prospective workers couldn’t receive the necessary clearances.

But emergency legislation — which goes into effect far more quickly than standard bills — is not allowed to carry any costs, including administrative ones. The school system said it would cost extra money to pay needed staff members to report this, George said, noting the council would be working with school officials to streamline this background check process.

Under the legislation, charter schools do not have to comply with the school facilities and safety portion of the bill because school leaders said it could cost them money to do so, according to George.

Charter school facilities are not overseen by DGS.

Lawmakers could request council budget specialists to assess whether these measures actually require additional costs, but that could take too much time if the council wants the bill to go into effect immediately, George’s office said.

Charter campuses would have to report the number of students who are out of compliance with their vaccinations.