The result is that many public middle and high schools are bringing in fewer students and for just a few hours a week for one or two courses in person or help from a teacher.
Public school parents are complaining to city officials that the D.C. health guidelines are a roadblock to reopening and are angry that private schools have more freedom to design their own pandemic school day. They want city officials to review the health guidelines.
“So DC Health is allowing private schools to not follow the same restrictions as public schools?” Laura Smith, the mother of a middle-schooler, wrote in an email to top city leaders. “This makes me so sad.”
The private schools have adhered to mask requirements and six feet of social distancing between students in classrooms, according to the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which advocates for the 29 independently financed schools in the city that are not run by religious organizations.
If these schools have the space, they have been able to exceed class sizes of 11 students that public schools are limited to. Students also have been able to switch classrooms and attend classes with different students during the day, which has allowed middle and high schools to operate closer to a normal academic day.
The strict cohort rules in D.C. aim to slow the spread of the virus in schools. If students or staff enter a school building with the virus, they would be in contact only with people in their cohort, reducing the risk of spread beyond that group and minimizing the number of people who would need to quarantine.
Although mixing cohorts carries higher risks, private school leaders said they have extensive safety precautions and testing in place to prevent the virus from spreading.
Health officials said they are reviewing local school health guidelines after updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to “implement changes that are consistent with best public health practice.”
Private schools are required to follow the mayor’s public health emergency orders, which mandate masks and quarantining if someone travels or has close contact with someone who has the virus.
But because the schools are independent, they do not have to abide by the more detailed and strict regulations overseen by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, local officials said.
“DC Health strongly encourages all schools to adopt our guidance recommendations as they are best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep students and teachers safe,” the health department wrote Tuesday in an emailed statement.
Although it is not uncommon for private and public schools to be regulated differently, it has played out more starkly in the District. In Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which are starting to bring back students this month, middle- and high-schoolers will be able to switch classes during the day.
In October, the headmaster at St. Albans, an all-boys private school in Northwest Washington, told families in a letter that the school had been in extensive communication with the city’s health department and was informed that private schools were not bound by the same health guidelines as public schools.
“St. Albans is free to move to our next phase of reopening — the Hybrid Plan — without the concerns connected with the very restrictive ‘podding’ of 11 students and 1 teacher, which would have made it virtually impossible to run our Upper School program,” Jason Robinson wrote.
While the majority of the 12,000 students attending these independent schools are receiving in-person instruction, the city’s public school system has about 20 percent of its 52,000 students in classrooms at least once a week. The charter sector is expected to bring 9,000 of its more than 45,000 students to schools for in-person learning by the end of the month.
Demand for in-person classes
It’s a situation that could exacerbate existing inequalities, with wealthier students attending classes in person at private schools and a larger group using public schools’ distance learning, which has left many students behind in their academics.
The District’s private schools are primarily located in some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, where infection rates have been far lower than in lower-income neighborhoods. Demand for in-person learning is high at private schools as well as the wealthiest public schools, while large percentages of families who live in hard-hit neighborhoods have told their schools they are not yet ready to return to school buildings.
But demand is growing across the city, and public school leaders have told families that the health guidelines limit their capacity to offer in-person instruction. Some have warned that if local and federal health guidelines did not ease, they would probably have to continue with a hybrid model in the fall.
“We’re really looking to see if that number of  students will increase and therefore we will be able to increase the number of students on campus,” Denise Edwards, principal of Sojourner Truth Montessori Public Charter School, said at a community meeting Tuesday evening.
Traditional public and charter school leaders have not publicly advocated for a loosening of the rules.
Anne Herr, director of policy and programs at the D.C. Charter School Alliance, an advocacy organization, said that many families and staff are reluctant to return to buildings and that school officials want the most rigorous safety protocols in place.
“They don’t want to second-guess health officials. They want clear and consistent health guidelines,” Herr said.
Robinson, the headmaster at St. Albans, said confusion last summer over whether private schools needed to adhere to the same cohorting rules as public schools delayed the fall reopening. In late October, the school brought back students in a hybrid model, with older students switching classes and teachers during the day. He said teachers with underlying medical conditions could remain home, and he expects more to return once they are vaccinated.
The school had its safety plan reviewed by the local health department, Robinson said. Although mixing cohorts is riskier, he said, school leaders felt they had robust contact tracing in place and were willing to quarantine as many classes as necessary if someone tested positive.
After the holiday break, St. Albans went all remote for two weeks in case anyone contracted the virus while traveling. To return, students needed to test negative for the virus. The school now tests students and staff every other week. Last week, the school conducted 560 tests and said zero came back positive.
“That has given us added confidence that our own microcommunity is doing the things they need to do in terms of masking, social distancing and responsible behavior,” Robinson said.
Neither private schools nor the health department have released the number of coronavirus cases detected in private schools.
At Washington International, a private school in Northwest Washington, 93 percent of its 900 students are reporting to in-person classes in a hybrid model, where they attend in person one week and remain home doing virtual learning the next.
The school, which reopened in early October, is sticking to the recommended 11-student class size, but middle- and high-schoolers are switching classes, said Kimberly A. Bennett, the school’s director of communications and marketing. Students have different classmates in each class and about five teachers a day.
In November, Washington International joined a study with UnitedHealth Group and the University of Washington that brought pooled testing to the school. With pooled testing, groups of eight to 16 students and faculty are grouped and regularly administered rapid tests. Those tests go through a detection machine together, and if one test is positive, the school works to determine who in the group has the virus.
The school has tested 940 groups and has detected one faculty member with a positive case, Bennett said. She said the school screens faculty and students for symptoms upon entering the campus and has had instances in which people have called in saying they have contracted the virus and cannot report to school.
“We feel pretty good about mitigation factors because our testing has shown that people are not getting sick and they are not transmitting it in school,” Bennett said.