“I’m just not willing to throw in the towel,” Ferebee said.
But so far, there is no proposed plan to bring back large numbers of students.
Ferebee has not yet reached an agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union about how to reopen schools, though he said negotiations continue. A deal is not required to bring students into classrooms — the groups have come close to reaching an accord multiple times — but an agreement would make it more likely that teachers would willingly return.
Ferebee said he would push forward without an agreement from the union and has already sent staff members a letter saying that teachers would be guaranteed a virtual assignment only if they meet strict federal guidelines for workplace accommodations.
The school system had earlier announced a reopening plan for November that would have allowed 7,000 elementary students to return to in-person learning. A lottery would have distributed the seats, with priority going to students who are homeless, learning English or in special education.
But the school system was unable to line up enough staff and canceled the plan. Ferebee is now giving schools more autonomy to decide which students return. He announced last week that every elementary school is convening a “Reopen Community Corps” with up to 15 staff members, parents and students. The groups will meet regularly over the next few weeks to help determine which grade levels will receive in-person learning.
“We know individual school communities are uniquely positioned to respond to the needs of their students furthest from opportunity,” the school system wrote in a letter to elementary school staffers last week.
Middle and high schools are also convening reopening corps. The principal of Roosevelt High School wrote in a letter to staff and families Wednesday that the school system aimed to bring back 25 percent of the student body to classrooms Feb. 1. The school system said it would not be mandatory to reopen middle and high schools that day and did not say how many campuses would reopen.
Meanwhile, the city continues to open elementary CARE classrooms — where students participate in virtual learning under the supervision of nonteaching staff — and now has the capacity to serve more than 600 students across 31 schools. The school system plans to open more classrooms in the coming weeks.
It’s unclear what the demand for the program is; attendance hovers around 50 percent each day, according to the school system.
The first CARE classrooms opened Nov. 18, and school officials say they have not recorded a coronavirus case connected with these programs. According to a city covid-19 tracker, five staff members and one student have tested positive for the coronavirus since Nov. 25. Another five staff members are awaiting confirmation of their test results. Staff members who test positive are counted in the tracker even if they report to a school building without students.
The student who tested positive attended an outdoor program at a school where children wore masks, according to city officials.
In all, 50 students and staff members have been quarantined as a result of these cases. The school system sends letters to staff and families at affected schools.
“This letter is to inform you that an individual, who was last present at Tyler Elementary School on Wednesday November 18, 2020 tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19),” a Nov. 30 letter from the Tyler principal read.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Wednesday announced a plan to test asymptomatic students and staff members for the coronavirus — a win for the city’s teachers who had been asking for more testing. Under the plan, students in CARE classrooms can be tested every 10 days. Teachers will have tests mailed to them weekly that they administer themselves. The mayor said the testing was part of a pilot program for CARE classrooms.
The school system had previously committed only to providing rapid testing on campus for students and staff members with symptoms.
“This is a critical step,” tweeted Kaila Ramsey, an elementary teacher who has been a vocal proponent of the city committing to more staff and student testing before schools reopen. But she asked, “why mail home kits for staff & not test everyone at the same time?”
Many parents and teachers, however, continue to be skeptical and mistrustful of the city’s ability to safely reopen schools. Students, parents and teachers testified Wednesday that they believe it is too risky to reopen schools and questioned the city’s ability to follow through with its promised safe guards.
“I’m hard-pressed to find a DCPS parent who has trust and confidence in DCPS’s reopening plans,” council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said at the hearing, referring to the city’s public schools.
But a growing number of parents are vocal about what they view as the urgent need to reopen schools. Parents are circulating a petition calling on the mayor to prioritize reopening schools over restaurants and gyms. More than 720 people have signed it.
“Enough is enough,” the petition reads. “Remote learning is failing our kids, and they deserve better.”