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With coronavirus cases rising, D.C. schools prepare to outline safety protocols for new academic year

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announces at a news conference on Aug. 10 that all city employees would be required to either be vaccinated or get tested weekly.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announces at a news conference on Aug. 10 that all city employees would be required to either be vaccinated or get tested weekly. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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D.C. officials say they intend to provide a detailed plan in the coming days of what safety protocols will be in school buildings this fall as the traditional public school system prepares to begin the new academic year on Aug. 30.

It promises to be the third straight academic year upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and parents say they are anxious to know more as the delta variant continues to drive an uptick in cases and there is no date set for when young children will become eligible for vaccines.

“There is so much angst and uncertainty,” D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said Friday on a call with city officials, noting that parents have asked him about health protocols for the fall.

Behind D.C.’s scramble to get teens vaccinated before school starts

Still, some new details trickled out this past week, with a clearer picture beginning to emerge about what the fall school year would look like. And the D.C. Health Department released new guidance for schools earlier this month that will strongly shape how traditional public and charter schools approach the next academic year.

Among the biggest differences: quarantine rules.

After traveling out of state, unvaccinated people — including all children under 12 — no longer have to quarantine for 10 days or receive a negative coronavirus test before returning to school or other activities. The most recent guidance from the Health Department now strongly recommends that residents quarantine and get tested after traveling, though it is not obligatory.

And Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said at a recent news conference that D.C. Public Schools will adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new definition of who is considered a close contact of someone who tests positive for the virus — which would result in fewer students being forced out of the classroom to quarantine.

In the spring, any unvaccinated student or teacher in the same class as someone who contracted the virus was sent home to quarantine.

D.C. employees must get the coronavirus vaccine or get tested weekly, mayor says

But over the summer, the CDC said that people who spend time inside schools with someone who tests positive are not considered close contacts if they are properly masked and there is increased ventilation. The city has announced that everyone — vaccinated or not — is required to wear a mask in school buildings.

Ferebee said the school system will offer distance learning for classrooms only if a “significant” number of students are quarantined. The school system and the Washington Teachers’ Union are working to determine what qualifies as a “significant” number of students, he said.

“We anticipate the impact on quarantine will be less significant than it was last year,” Ferebee said, “which will allow us to maximize in-person learning, which is where we want our students to be.”

As the city experiences a steady increase in virus cases, driven in part by the highly contagious delta variant and pockets of unvaccinated residents, some parents say they want more stringent health rules — not less — and are feeling particularly nervous about their children eating unmasked at lunch.

Masks in schools: Explaining the debate over face coverings in classrooms

D.C. Public Schools said preschoolers will eat in their classrooms, while students in older grades will together eat in the cafeteria. The D.C. Health Department suggests that students maintain distance between one another, though it acknowledged that that may be impossible in some spaces. Individual schools can develop different indoor and outdoor plans depending on their staffing and space configurations.

Children are expected to keep their masks on when they are not eating.

“I don’t see how it is different from a restaurant,” said Wendy Cronin, who has a rising fifth-grader at an elementary school in the Navy Yard area of Southeast Washington. “My daughter has not gone into a restaurant this entire time and I’m not really interested in her doing it every day at lunch.”

Cronin said she wished the school system pushed schools to use outdoor spaces for lunch.

Danny Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, is part of a collective of scientists advising North Carolina schools that has examined coronavirus data from more than 100 school districts.

Benjamin is confident that schools can safely reopen, with little transmission if proper mask-wearing is adhered to.

The delta variant and kids: Parents’ questions answered

Benjamin said that extracurricular activities and lunch pose higher risks than being in a classroom masked but that there are ways to lessen the threat. He recommended that students space out in the same assigned seats each day. Students should wear masks until they begin eating and lunch should be kept to 15 minutes or shorter as a way to minimize the risk of spread. The CDC says people who are unmasked indoors for less than 15 minutes are not considered close contacts.

Benjamin said some school districts are shortening lunch times and allowing students to play outside for the remaining portion.

He also said that making sure children properly wear their masks during the day is critical to keeping students safe.

“If you do a lunch protocol, you will reduce transmission,” Benjamin said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Tuesday that all city employees and contractors will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing for the coronavirus, with vaccination required for new employees. Almost all charter schools have said they will adopt the same policy.

City officials said there are no plans to regularly test vaccinated staff members.

On Friday, the Bowser administration said on a call with D.C. Council members that the city will randomly test each week between 10 and 20 percent of students who have completed testing consent forms in traditional public and charter schools. Charters can opt into this program or adopt their own testing protocols. KIPP DC, the city’s charter network, is collecting student consent forms and plans to test every vaccinated student and staff member each week in a pooled testing model.

The District is struggling to vaccinate all of its eligible children, particularly Black children, who have drastically lower vaccination rates than their White and Hispanic peers.

Earlier this month, the city launched an incentive program with free AirPods or gift cards for children who received their vaccines at specific sites.

On the council call Friday, officials said that during the three days those sites were open, 212 young people received their vaccinations. Of those, 143 chose to take home AirPods, while the others opted for $51 gift cards.

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