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D.C. Council expands virtual learning, approves other pandemic-related measures

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson speaks at a council meeting in June 2019.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson speaks at a council meeting in June 2019. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. Council unanimously voted Tuesday to expand the number of students eligible to participate in virtual learning, undermining the mayor’s long-standing order that all students — with the exception of those who qualify for a strict health exemption — be in a physical classroom this academic year.

But the approved emergency legislation was far more narrow than the council had originally sought, and the council chairman blamed the mayor, saying her administration purposefully obstructed their efforts by saying it would be difficult for the city to fund a broader expansion in virtual learning.

In turn, the Bowser administration criticized even the limited bill passed by the council, saying that it is “deeply concerned” that the bill could require schools to make staffing changes and diminish the quality of in-person schooling.

The measure will allow up to 200 additional D.C. Public Schools elementary students and 150 middle school students who are under the age of 12 and not yet eligible for a coronavirus vaccine to switch to virtual learning.

They would join 286 students who have already received a medical exemption from learning in a school building.

Students can qualify if their doctors recommend they stay at home or if they live with a relative who is at high risk for a severe case of the coronavirus.

Charter networks have more leeway, with the council saying each can decide how many eligible virtual learners to accommodate, though each network must cap it at no less than 3 percent of its student body.

The approved bill did not detail what would happen if demand for virtual learning exceeds capacity.

“If anyone says to any member of the council that you’re bad because you didn’t go far enough with virtual learning,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said ahead of the vote Tuesday, “it’s because we couldn’t go any further because the executive was unwilling to fund it.”

Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, said in an interview that he felt the bill left out other logistical answers, including how a doctor can attest to the health of a child’s relative.

“We landed on a plan and a strategy which we’ve implemented, which is that young people’s physicians or nurse practitioners can attest to the need that they have for virtual learning,” Kihn said. “Council has now come forward with a different proposal, which in my view doesn’t appear to be one we are certain we know how to implement.”

The bill marks an unusual challenge to the mayor’s control of the day-to-day operations of public schools. It is the most significant step that the council has taken to shape school reopenings through legislation since campuses were shut down in March 2020 to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Over the weekend, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) attempted to persuade the council to reject the legislation in a letter to Mendelson.

Emergency legislation cannot carry a cost, and the Bowser administration argued that expanding virtual learning could require hiring additional teachers. Mendelson rebutted that the costs could be absorbed in traditional public and charter schools’ surplus budgets.

On Tuesday, council members said the mayor was ignoring the voices of parents, while they were responding to calls for more virtual learning.

“The community is saying that they want to have an alternative,” said council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large).

The emergency bill also calls on the city to increase asymptomatic coronavirus testing to 20 percent of students at each school every week by Nov. 15. Currently, the city says it aims to test between 10 percent and 20 percent of students each week, but it has struggled to hit 10 percent. The bill would also allow students to receive excused absences if they remain home for pandemic-related reasons and requires the city to publish more data about virus cases detected in schools.

The council also approved other pandemic-related measures intended to extend previously passed emergency bills that were close to expiring, such as a bill that clarifies the eligibility and documentation criteria for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to cover larger rent arrears.

A resolution that mandates council members and their staff to be vaccinated by Oct. 31, unless they are granted a religious or medical exemption, was passed by the council on a 12-to-1 vote, with only Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) voting against it. New hires must also be vaccinated.

A vaccine-or-test mandate for government workers imposed by Bowser in August only applied to agencies that report directly to the mayor. Under the council resolution, staff members who aren’t granted an exemption will be placed on unpaid leave, starting Nov. 1, until proof of vaccination is submitted. Council members who don’t comply will be “subject to appropriate discipline.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, White flashed his vaccine card and said that he himself is fully vaccinated but that he opposes “the government mandating what people do with their bodies.”

Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said she appreciated White’s concerns but added: “The decision not to get vaccinated has health and economic consequences for everyone in our city and beyond.”

The council also unanimously approved a bill proposed by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) that extended a previously passed emergency bill requiring D.C. Superior Court to seal certain eviction records. The latest version, meant to be a stopgap until a permanent version can be passed, establishes an enforcement mechanism for landlords who attempt to use sealed eviction records to take action against a tenant, such as denying them a unit or charging higher rent.

The council also extended a moratorium on foreclosures and gave Bowser permission to extend the city’s state of emergency until Jan. 7.

The foreclosure moratorium was originally set to expire Nov. 5, and the council moved the date to Feb. 4. Mendelson said D.C. needed more time to receive and distribute $50 million in federal aid for homeowners. According to the council, there are nearly 7,000 D.C. homeowners behind on their mortgage or housing bills.

The bill also sets more explicit parameters around evictions that were authorized before the pandemic and set to resume, requiring landlords to say in notices how much money is still owed by the tenant. They must also check with the Department of Human Services to determine if tenants have a pending application for rental aid.

Twelve members voted in favor of the changes, with Trayon White Sr. voting “present.”

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s day-long meeting, the council also approved contracts for three insurers to continue managing the health care of more than 200,000 D.C. residents who receive Medicaid, bringing at least a temporary conclusion to a heated controversy over which companies should receive some of the highest-value contracts in the city’s budget, collectively worth about $1.5 billion.

Last year, the city awarded the contracts to AmeriHealth, CareFirst and MedStar, but a judge then ruled that the District hadn’t followed its own procurement rules and ordered the city to reevaluate the bids for the contracts, which would disqualify MedStar.

Bowser spent months trying to avoid an outcome that left MedStar out of the Medicaid program — in part because the company, which both acts as an insurer and runs major D.C. hospitals, threatened to stop treating Medicaid patients at its hospitals if it didn’t get the contract.

The council agreed on Tuesday, with 11 votes in favor, to extend for another nine months last year’s contracts with AmeriHealth and CareFirst and to create a separate nine-month emergency contract with MedStar, to keep the insurer in the program.

Silverman was the only member to vote against approving the contracts; Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who also expressed concerns that the council was flouting contracting law by awarding MedStar although it did not win the procurement, voted present. “I think it sends a dangerous message, which is if you have enough market share and enough political power, you can just tell the council what to do,” Silverman said. “If you’re voting yes to this, what you’re saying is it’s okay for MedStar to bully us.”

MedStar in a statement Tuesday night thanked the mayor and council for their action.