Even as coronavirus cases rise and teacher wariness persists, city leaders say they have the right plan in place and schools will reopen for the first time since March. This is the first time the city has tried to bring teachers back to classrooms since it reached an agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union in December about the guidelines schools need to follow to reopen.
In all, school officials say the plan has the capacity to serve 15,000 of the school system’s 52,000 students across all grade levels. They began offering students in-person slots this week, starting with students identified by principals as most vulnerable for academic failure.
School system officials say every campus will have some in-person learning.
“I would dare say we have the best reopening plan anywhere in the country,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a Ward 3 Democrats meeting last week. “And that is not an exaggeration.”
But teachers have slammed the reopening plan as ill-conceived and unsafe, arguing it also fails to serve the city’s most vulnerable students as intended. Demand for in-person learning is highest in the wealthiest swaths of the city, while some schools serving students from low-income families have few students who want to return. Still, around a third of families in the wards with the highest concentrations of poverty indicated they are interested in returning, according to a December survey.
The city’s charter sector educates more than 40,000 students, with the vast majority still learning virtually. Seventeen of the city’s 66 charter networks are offering some in-person learning, and more are likely to reopen when the school system does.
Some teachers and parents say the District’s case numbers are perilously high and schools should not reopen in February. Because demand for in-person learning varies so much by school, teachers are not receiving the same accommodations, said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.
She said some teachers, for example, are able to remain virtual if they have personal child-care conflicts, while others are pressured to return and are being told they need to take leave if they have child-care issues.
“Teachers are feeling rather nervous,” Davis said.
Principals decided which teachers should be assigned to in-person teaching based on the school’s demand, D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Elizabeth Bartolomeo said.
Cases are rising in the District, and infection rates are higher than when city officials attempted to reopen schools in August and November. The average daily case rate hit a record high of 45.9 cases per 100,000 residents last week. Unlike other school districts, the school system’s agreement with the union on reopening schools is not tied to specific health metrics. Instead, the agreement says schools should follow federal health and local health guidelines when reopening.
Local guidelines say schools can reopen in Phase 2 of the city’s reopening metrics. The city is meeting just eight of those 10 metrics, and because of the high number of cases is operating in a modified Phase 2, with some activities that had previously been allowed — such as indoor dining — now canceled again. Even as some of the metrics have risen out of acceptable Phase 2 levels, Bowser has indicated she does not want to go back to Phase 1.
The city says it hopes to begin vaccinating school and day-care staff Jan. 25, with priority going to employees who will be working in-person Feb. 1. Bowser has said reopening schools is not contingent on teachers being vaccinated.
At a D.C. State Board of Education meeting last week, teachers testified that the city should wait to reopen schools until staff is vaccinated.
The District’s health department had scheduled a meeting last week for educators to learn about vaccines, but after everyone logged on, the agency had to cancel it because of technical issues, further frustrating school staff. The meeting is rescheduled for this week.
“If they can’t even manage to hold an information session on the vaccine, you can imagine how little trust and faith and trust we have on actually having a safe reopening and vaccine plan,” Desiree Tedeschi, special education coordinator at Whittier Elementary School, testified at the meeting.
In Virginia, some school systems are beginning to vaccinate teachers and employees as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) urges officials to resume in-person instruction as soon as possible. Alexandria City Public Schools started vaccinating teachers, bus drivers, nutritionists and central administrators on Tuesday. In Fairfax City, some school staff — including bus drivers who’ve been delivering meals in person — began signing up for vaccines last week. Teachers will be able to sign up Jan. 23.
The Northern Virginia districts say reopening is not dependent on the timing of vaccinations. Most have yet to set definite dates by which students will return.
In Montgomery County, the first school system employees are expected to get immunized before the month’s end, officials said. The county will begin phasing in a return to campuses March 15 at the earliest, depending on health metrics.
At a town hall in the District last week, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee provided a glimpse of what in-person learning would look like at schools. Elementary, middle and high schools could each choose from four different models, or a combination. Sixty-three percent of elementary schools selected a model where students would report in-person four days a week while the teacher simultaneously teaches them and students who are learning virtually. Around a third of schools selected a hybrid model where students attend school for part of the week, or part of the day, and learn virtually the remainder of the time.
The majority of middle and high schools are opting to bring students back for targeted academic support, mental health services and electives.
Depending on the model that schools choose, some students will have to switch teachers and the sizes of some virtual classes will grow.
The city has not yet said how many students have accepted seats. There are more than 900 students enrolled in elementary CARE classrooms, where they participate in virtual learning under the supervision of nonteaching staff. Nearly all of these students are expected to be offered a slot for in-person learning classroom. The city has the capacity to serve 1,400 students in these CARE classrooms.
Tina Thompson, a teacher at a Southeast Washington elementary school, said at the state board of education meeting that the city’s plan pits staff members against one another since so many employees do not want to return. She volunteered to teach in person because she feared her co-workers — one who has asthma and another who has young children — would need to go back instead if she didn’t.
Because of low demand, she said she was informed that only one student would be in her in-person classroom.
“It’s like the ‘Hunger Games,’” she said. “You can volunteer to get eaten.”