The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers, residents push top D.C. education leaders for more testing, transparency and virtual learning

Clifton Taylor, basketball coach and behavior tech greets students as they arrive for the first day of school at Eliot-Hine Middle School School in Washington on Aug. 30.
Clifton Taylor, basketball coach and behavior tech greets students as they arrive for the first day of school at Eliot-Hine Middle School School in Washington on Aug. 30. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

City officials, teachers and parents depicted two vastly different versions of how schools are operating at full capacity during the pandemic at a seven-hour D.C. Council oversight hearing Tuesday.

In one, city leaders said they have reopened schools adhering to strict safety protocols. Children are safe in school buildings, officials said, and although they conceded that communication could be stronger, they testified that the academic year is off to a strong start.

In the other, parents and teachers described an administration that has failed to listen and communicate with residents, and haphazardly reopened school buildings without proper and consistent protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.

“I’m no longer risking my children’s health and my entire household every day sending them to school,” said parent Lorenzo Bell, who said he wants the city to allow his four children to remain at home full time and participate in virtual learning. “When my family tried in-person learning, we were skeptical, and now we are against it.”

The hearing was the latest in a series that D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has hosted during the pandemic to bring residents and officials together to discuss — and be questioned about — the reopening of school buildings.

In the District, the mayor controls the public schools, and her top education leaders report to her, not a school board. The D.C. Council is intended to be a check on the mayor, and members could pass legislation to narrowly shape some aspects of how schools operate or use their position to put pressure on the mayor.

Tuesday’s hearing drew more than 60 residents and teachers, most of whom called for tighter safety protocols and an expanded virtual learning option. Seven education officials answered council member’s questions.

Publicly available data indicates that, as of Friday, D.C. Public Schools had reported 370 positive cases among its 52,000 students and 1,088 students were quarantined. There had also been 120 positive cases among the system’s 7,500 employees. The District has an asymptomatic testing program, but so far, it has failed to meet its goal to test at least 10 percent of students for the virus in every school each week.

The union representing the principals has said the administration of contact tracing has wrongly fallen to individual schools. And some parents testified that the city should grant permission to families to have their children learn virtually full time — even if they do not meet the city’s strict eligibility rules to do so.

Challenges in first weeks of school: Contact tracing, testing and quarantining.

“We are working hard to keep our schools safe and we do believe our students are safe in our schools.” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said at the hearing. “And of course today we have heard from witnesses that we are not entirely perfect in all these matters, but we are continuing to work together to ensure we make corrections and strengthen when possible.”

During the hearing, council members pressed education leaders on the issues raised by families and teachers. They asked whether the school system would consider testing more students each week. Kihn said that officials are not currently considering a policy change, but that does not mean the city will never change its approach. Officials are exploring ways to test quarantined students or send them home with tests.

Council members also questioned why the city isn’t expanding virtual learning options. Kihn said he understands parents’ anxiety, but city leaders believe the current rule is “the best approach for the city right now.”

And the lawmakers pushed for clarity on the city’s quarantine policies, which parents and teachers say have been inconsistently and confusingly implemented.

The District’s health department has adopted federal health guidelines, which say if a student is properly masked and at least three feet from an infected classmate who was also masked, they are not considered a close contact and do not need to quarantine.

But some schools are quarantining whole classes when someone tests positive, and others are quarantining just a few students. And sometimes, parents and teachers said, it takes days to learn about positive cases.

District leaders testified that contact tracers are becoming better trained in school protocols. They acknowledged that they have not effectively informed families about protocols, and said the city is using a communication firm to devise a more effective plan to relay information.

“The reality is that every school is not the same, and that is why you see different application of guidance to contact tracing, quarantining and isolation,” said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant. “It is true that depending on the class size, the room size, the square footage of the facility, the uniqueness of the actual learning environment, that you may have a different result from one classroom over another.”

What to know about school masks, staff vaccines and quarantines in the D.C. area

Multiple parents and advocates Tuesday testified that children in quarantine are not receiving an adequate education at home.

Sharra Greer, policy director at the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group that provides free legal services to D.C. children from low-income families, said she has one client who received two packets of schoolwork for a 10-day quarantine.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said all quarantined students should be sent home with a tablet or laptop. Teachers should upload work for students to an online portal called Canvas, which allows staff members to see if students are completing the work. Ferebee said he regularly meets with the unions representing teachers and school workers to see what additional services they can provide.

While city leaders testified into the evening Tuesday, about a dozen teachers gathered outside Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill to protest what they said were unsafe building conditions. They criticized city leaders as being out of touch with what is actually occurring in classrooms.

Teachers said their students are not always social distancing and they constantly need to remind them to wear masks. Because most teachers are vaccinated, they are often not treated as close contacts and aren’t told to quarantine if someone in their classroom contracts the virus.

David Ifill, a middle school teacher, said that should change.

“We have to be in danger all the time. It’s not right,” Ifill said. “We are hoarse in the throat from constantly telling students to put on their masks.”

Michael Hoffman, a parent of two school-aged children, walked by the protest and listened with frustration. He said he believes school buildings are safe and, while he understands why staff members and families are anxious, he fears what would happen if the city decided to close them again. Hoffman said the dangers that students face outside of school are often greater than the risk of the coronavirus inside of school.

“Are they going to ask the city to close these streets to traffic?” Hoffman asked, pointing to the intersections around Watkins. “If you look at the statistics, there’s a better chance that a kid is going to be killed from getting hit by a car from this street than they are from covid.”

On Monday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that all public and private school staff members must be vaccinated by Nov. 1, eliminating the option to get tested weekly instead. Ferebee said Tuesday that least 68 percent of school staff members are vaccinated, based on the 75 percent of staffers who have reported their status to the city.

The mayor also announced that student-athletes age 12 and older who participate in school sports must also get vaccinated. Kihn said Tuesday that the city is considering a vaccine mandate for all eligible students.