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District bill to increase access to virtual learning sets up a clash with the mayor

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in May.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in May. (Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council is planning to introduce legislation that would expand access to virtual learning, potentially setting up a showdown with the mayor, who has remained firm that she wants nearly all students in physical classrooms across the city this academic year.

The emergency legislation would allow more students to qualify to remain home and participate in virtual learning, which would undermine an order from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) that all public school students attend class in person unless they qualify for a narrow health exemption. Families have pushed back against that order, and said they do not feel safe sending their children back and want an expanded virtual option.

The emergency bill, which was spearheaded by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), marks the biggest 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.

Under the legislation, which was still being modified Friday, students under 12 who are ineligible for a coronavirus vaccine would be allowed to stay home if they live with someone who is immunocompromised.

It would also allow any student to participate in virtual learning if their doctors recommend that they remain home because they have a health condition that would put them at higher risk for complications if they contract the virus. The virtual learning plan would also apply to both the traditional public and charter sectors, according to a draft bill.

Families ask mayor for more virtual learning options

Bowser panned the remote learning bill on Friday. “I absolutely am not supportive of any legislation that is going to disrupt in-person learning,” Bowser said at a news conference. “I actually have not seen any legislation and I would strongly encourage the council members to allow the people responsible for education to do their jobs.” She added, “We feel very confident that school buildings are the safest place for kids.”

The mayor pledged in May that students could only stay home if their doctors say they are required to because of a medical condition, a strict wording that parents say made doctors wary of signing forms for virtual learning. Just a few hundred of the 52,000 students in the traditional public school system are eligible for remote learning.

Mendelson said he does not have an estimate of how many additional students would be eligible under this legislation, but suspects it would be in the hundreds, not the thousands. He said living with elderly grandparents, for instance, would not qualify a child for virtual learning.

Emergency legislation, which would only remain in effect for 90 days and needs nine of the 13 council member votes to pass, is not allowed to cost any extra taxpayer money. That means that schools would not be able to hire more staff to accommodate the additional virtual learners.

Seven council members, including Mendelson, have signed on as sponsors to the measure. Mendelson said he believes he will have the nine votes for passage. The D.C. Council’s legislative session starts Tuesday.

District leaders are pushed for more virtual learning

Since the District closed schools to help contain the pandemic in March 2020, the D.C. Council has held public education hearings, but has done little to interfere with the mayor’s school reopening plans.

In early September, as calls for more expanded virtual learning options ramped up, Mendelson said in an interview with The Washington Post that he wouldn’t challenge the mayor’s stance on virtual learning, but would reassess his position on it after the first weeks of school.

At an D.C. Council hearing last month, parents and teachers said the city has failed to listen and communicate with residents, and it haphazardly reopened schools without proper and consistent pandemic protocols. They also said they wanted more access to virtual learning.

The bill would allow students to receive excused absences if they remain home for pandemic-related reasons. Parents testified at the hearing last month that if one of their children was quarantined and they kept another child home, which the city does not recommend, the sibling would accrue unexcused absences. Too many could lead to a call, and a possible neglect investigation, from the Child and Family Services Agency.

Challenges in the first weeks of school in the District

The District has said it has launched few investigations into families this academic year. Mendleson said he is concerned that the current version of the legislation could lead to families who are endangering their children to slip through the cracks and not receive calls. “We are trying to thread the needle,” he said. “I am concerned that is the trade-off.”

Shannon Hodge, executive director of the D.C. Charter School Alliance, said in a statement that the legislation reflects concerns from parents and that there are a “significant” number of students who have completed enrollment paperwork but have not attended school, suggesting they could be staying home for coronavirus-related reasons.

On Tuesday, the city will conduct its annual enrollment count of schools, which helps to determine funding. Hodge said the alliance is concerned potential issues could arise if students are enrolled but have been absent the entire academic year for pandemic-related reasons.

“While many of these students will qualify for an exemption under this emergency legislation, the enrollment audit deadline will have passed by the time the legislation is enacted,” Hodge added in the statement. “This will create an unintended outcome of schools having to choose between unenrolling these students or not receiving funding for them.”