Staffers at middle and high schools said that their campuses rely on the employees to provide support to students and teachers during virtual learning and that they worry about the disruption of reassigning personnel in the middle of an already stressful and complicated semester.
They also fear that staff changes could make it more difficult to plan for a return to in-person learning for older students, who are not expected to return to classrooms before February.
The school system has stressed the need for younger students to return to classrooms first, saying that virtual learning is the least effective for them. This is also the population that requires the most supervision, and returning them to classrooms is critical to allowing families to go back to work.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee announced on Oct. 5 that up to 21,000 D.C. Public Schools elementary students — or 75 percent of all elementary school students — would be allowed to return to classrooms on Nov. 9, the beginning of the second term of the academic year. Seven thousand of these students would receive in-person instruction from teachers. The remaining 14,000 students would participate in virtual learning from their classrooms under the supervision of an adult who is not a teacher. The school system is calling these “CARE classrooms.”
The Washington Teachers’ Union opposed the elementary reopening plan, arguing that buildings are not safe for in-person instruction and that their teachers are not ready to return to the classrooms. Bowser has remained firm that at least some schools should reopen and has said the city’s virus health data deems it safe to do so.
“At this time, we do not anticipate our staffing plans to drastically affect operations at our secondary schools,” the school system said in a statement Tuesday. “DCPS will monitor Term 2 operations closely and leverage insights to support our decision-making for Term 3.”
When Bowser announced the elementary school reopening plan, she said the city would try to pull from the existing school-system staff to supervise the CARE classrooms. The school system informed its central-office employees that they may be called to supervise students. Bowser said the city could hire additional staffers, and other government employees may also be called to staff CARE classrooms. Bowser oversees the city’s schools and is granted broad authority during a public health emergency, which includes making personnel shifts.
Principals were informed Monday evening how many staff members they may be required to give up next term for elementary schools. It is unclear how many middle and high school staff members will be reassigned to elementary schools, but with the small class sizes required during the public health emergency, the limited elementary reopening plan could require thousands of staff members to be there in person.
Richard Jackson, who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for principals and mid-level school leadership, said he has heard that some schools will need to send staffers in the “double digits” to elementary campuses. Jackson said principals have been asked to select the staff members who will be dispatched to CARE classrooms.
These staff members may range from secretaries to assistant principals who are often part of the team figuring out how to reopen their own school buildings. School secretaries and paraprofessionals — who include academic and behavioral aides — are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. A union representative described the situation as “fluid” and said the union is determining how this would affect its workers.
“I am hearing shrieks of ‘What in the world is going on?’ ” Jackson said. “It seems the priority are these day cares and not middle and high schools.”
The principal union’s pushback and confusion about the plan to reshuffle staff is the latest complication in the school system’s reopening proposal. After weeks of negotiations, the school system and union have yet to reach a deal on what safety precautions need to be taken to reopen buildings. The chancellor does not need an agreement with the union to reopen school buildings, but an accord would make it more likely that teachers would be willing to return to classrooms.
The school system is working on staffing plans for the 7,000 elementary students who are expected to receive in-person instruction from teachers next month, and it is unclear how many teachers it has enlisted so far.