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D.C. officials developing ‘virtual by need’ policy on school attendance

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D.C. leaders expect all public and charter schools to open for full-time, in-person instruction this fall, and students must attend in person unless they can demonstrate a need to stay home, City Administrator Kevin Donahue said Friday during a meeting with the D.C. Council.

Echoing Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s comments Monday that in-person attendance would be “required” in the fall unless children have an exemption, rather than the current rules that allow parents to choose at-home learning for any child, Donahue said city leaders are working on a policy that would lay out the specific health conditions that might allow a family to choose to keep their child home next school year. He called the new policy “virtual by need.”

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Donahue said the city is also considering broadcasting a live video of in-person classrooms for children who do stay home, rather than teaching those children online using instruction specifically meant for virtual learning.

Remote learning has presented unique challenges for students, like Ana Reyes, who are also immigrants and speak English as as second language. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Lindsey Sitz/The Washington Post)

The majority of public school students in the city are still learning virtually as the coronavirus pandemic continues, and demand for in-person learning in schools serving low-income populations is far lower than in schools serving more affluent ones. Among the reasons parents have cited as to why they do not yet want to return: their child or a relative has a health condition making them high risk, they do not trust the city to keep their children safe in a school building during the pandemic, or the current lack of after care makes it impossible to pick up their children at dismissal. More than a dozen of the city’s 66 charter networks do not offer in-person learning or provide only limited in-person help for students once a week.

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John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for business and economic development, said he has been talking with restaurant owners about pandemic restrictions they want to see loosened, including potentially allowing more diners at a table and allowing patrons at live entertainment venues to sit closer to the stage.

Bowser (D) has promised to lift some of the city’s restrictions May 1, and Falcicchio said she will announce next week which of those requests from businesses might be included in the relaxed May rules.

Bowser also announced this week that on June 1, the city will resume ticketing cars that are improperly parked or violating a host of other restrictions that have gone unenforced for more than a year. That announcement prompted a surge in demand for Department of Motor Vehicle appointments, which have been scarce during the pandemic, so that car owners can get their vehicles compliant before ticketing resumes.

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Donahue said the DMV is opening more than 500 appointments daily, many of them a few weeks out, and that any resident who needs one will be able to get one before June 1.

Council members also expressed concern about vaccine access for people who are not savvy about how to make an appointment. Patrick Ashley, head of emergency response for D.C. Health, said the city will soon make links to pharmacies such as CVS that have their own appointment sign-up process available on the city’s vaccine website.

After opening walk-up vaccine sites this week for seniors to only moderate interest, Ashley said, the health department is considering making walk-up appointments available at more sites across the city for younger adults.

“We have seen some seniors take advantage of that, but not an overwhelming amount,” he said. “Nationwide, we have lots more supply, and demand is waning a little bit.”

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The move comes as virus cases in the city and across the region begin to tick downward. The seven-day average of new cases in the city was 99 on Friday, the first time it has dropped to double-digits since mid-November.

Maryland’s seven-day average of new cases on Friday was 1,114 and has been steadily dropping since mid-April, when the state was seeing an uptick in cases.

In Virginia, the seven-day average of new cases hit 1,300 on Friday, the lowest the state has seen since mid-March.

D.C. reported 101 new cases Friday and one death, while Maryland reported 1,163 new cases and eight deaths. Virginia reported 1,340 new cases and 13 deaths.

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