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With first week of school done, parents and lawmakers continue to press D.C. mayor for a virtual option

D.C. public schools are back in person with some exceptions, but parents and guardians are debating whether it’s safe as the pandemic continues. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

With the first week of school completed, parents and elected officials in D.C. are still ramping up calls for the mayor to allow more families to opt in to virtual learning.

They say they are anxious about children who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus learning in school buildings that are operating at full capacity and that the city’s recently eased health guidance for schools — which aligns with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations — make little sense as the virus’s more contagious delta variant continues to drive an uptick in cases.

But D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has remained firm: Everyone, except children with doctor’s notes, must attend classes in school buildings this year.

D.C. mayor says all students will be back in school full-time in the fall. Can she pull it off?

Bowser first announced plans in the spring to forgo wide-scale remote learning for the new school year that began Aug. 30. The mayor and officials in her administration have said that students, particularly low-income students of color, fell behind in virtual learning and it is vital that they return to classrooms. And they are confident that buildings are safe.

“All of us think that the best place for our children to learn is in buildings,” Bowser said at a news conference Thursday. “If we needed to expand [virtual learning], we would have expanded it.”

It’s a shift from last year, when the District’s plans to offer in-person learning changed repeatedly because of public pressure from parents and teachers. The District ultimately offered hybrid learning in the spring, with about 10,000 students returning to classrooms and the rest continuing to learn virtually. And the demographics of students returning to classrooms were striking, with students in the city’s wealthiest ward more than twice as likely to accept an in-person learning seat than those in the poorest ward.

The racial disparities over who is returning to D.C. classrooms puts spotlight on equity

By comparison, as of Friday, just 204 of the District’s 52,000 traditional public school students have so far been approved to continue with virtual learning this academic year, according to D.C. Public Schools. Everyone else is required to be in classrooms.

Coronavirus cases have risen across the Washington region this summer. However, Bowser has said she is not eyeing any specific level of coronavirus cases that could bring in-person learning to a halt.

In a joint letter, all nine members of the D.C. State Board of Education — which holds no authority over the day-to-day operations of schools — called on Bowser to allow a virtual option for anyone who wants it. Some D.C. Council members have also joined the demand, calling for at least wider eligibility for remote learning.

But D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has said he agrees with the mayor and that he will reassess the effectiveness of the safety precautions after the first few weeks of school. “I think it’s premature to demand the mayor reverse course,” Mendelson said.

Even if the council were to become unified around the issue, the mayor controls operations of the city’s public schools. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the D.C. Council has held many hearings fielding feedback and information about education, but it has done little to intervene on how and when schools should reopen.

And Bowser’s top education leaders have remained in lockstep with the mayor, showing up to public meetings and news conferences, saying that in-person learning is vital to students’ academic and social-emotional well-being, and batting away concerns that school buildings are unsafe.

“I certainly have and continue to stand by the science that relates to covid and guidance for schools,” Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in an interview Friday. “The guidance that I have read is that there are very few and unique circumstances where students should learn remotely.” 

Video: Coronavirus anxiety remains high as children in D.C. return to school.

At a Wednesday meeting, D.C. State Board of Education Ward 8 representative Carlene Reid made a tearful plea to the Bowser administration as she talked about the families who have reached out to her because they were rejected from the virtual option.

She said she has heard from a mother whose household includes an adult with stage 4 lung cancer whose child was not approved for virtual learning. A mother who shares a bed with her children also called her, fearing what would happen if she contracted the coronavirus because she can’t miss work.

“This is not equity,” Reid said. “It is terrible.”

Across the country, school districts have taken different approaches to virtual learning this fall. In the Washington region, the Prince George’s County schools system has offered a short-term virtual option until a coronavirus vaccine is approved for students in kindergarten through sixth grade as well as a new online campus for older students who thrived in a virtual setting and want to continue with it. In Arlington, the school district — which enrolls about 23,000 — has accepted roughly 740 children into virtual learning this year. System spokesman Frank Bellavia said “no students who expressed interest were turned away.”

But some big jurisdictions are taking the District’s approach and limiting virtual learning, including New York City. In Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, top officials decided that only students with a provable medical need will be able to learn online-only this school year. As of late August, just 400 students — out of the district’s 180,000 — had qualified for and enrolled in virtual learning, according to a spokeswoman.

Back in D.C., Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) both say they have fielded calls from parents whose applications to continue with virtual learning were rejected. Allen said one parent’s immunocompromised son was approved for virtual learning, but his sibling was not.

“The parents are beside themselves,” he said. “The same exposure risks are now being brought home.” 

The city’s medical exemption form calls on physicians and nurse practitioners to sign a statement that children’s health conditions “require” them to remain in virtual learning. Lewis George said the strict wording has made medical professionals wary of signing it because they cannot conclusively say whether children are required to stay home, only that they would be at higher risk for serious complications if they contract the virus.

“With the delta variant, [virtual learning] should be open to everyone,” Lewis George said. “But the medium ground would be to make the forms less restrictive.”

Meanwhile, some parents in the District are raising other questions about the return to classrooms. Some say they want stricter quarantine rules more akin to last academic year, when students were quarantined if anyone in the classroom contracted the virus. This academic year, following federal guidance, the district says only people who are unmasked and near someone who has the virus need to quarantine.

The city mandates masks for anyone inside of school buildings, except when eating. They want the city to require that children eat outdoors, instead of making it optional.

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

Parents and teachers also have written to city officials and posted on social media about faulty HVAC systems in their schools. Schools have told parents that some HVAC system repairs have been delayed because of global supply issues, but that every room is supposed to have portable air filtration systems.

They also have expressed concerns about coronavirus testing. D.C. is supposed to test 10 percent to 20 percent of students each week as part of its asymptomatic testing program. The school system said Friday that the program partially launched this week and will continue to expand next week. On Thursday and Friday, the city processed 964 student tests at 37 schools, with four tests coming back positive. The city has reported other cases detected in schools, but those were not captured in the asymptomatic testing program and it is still too early to determine if there has been any spread in schools.

Parents and the majority of the D.C. Council have also called on Bowser to mandate that school staff members be vaccinated, instead of allowing unvaccinated staff members to be tested weekly.

“DC families have endured a lot in the past 18 months — job losses, hardship, untold stress, loss of family members — in order to keep our children and ourselves safe from COVID,” reads an online petition to Bowser signed by nearly 1,500 people. “The DC in-person school reopening plan makes that hardship and those sacrifices moot with the lack of proper safeguards in place.”

Despite worries, preliminary information shows that attendance has not taken a major hit so far this year. DCPS said it is still crunching its numbers but that it has not seen any patterns indicating that a significant number of students stayed home. Both charter and school system leaders say they have heard from parents who did not send their children to school because they had been exposed to the virus — a positive sign, leaders said, that families are following screening protocols.

Friendship Schools — the District’s second-largest charter network, which enrolls 4,500 students and started a week before the traditional public school system — said attendance has been higher in the first weeks of the academic year than it was in the first weeks of the 2019-2020 year. The network, which ran a virtual academy during the pandemic, has approved 42 students to remain virtual.

Still, some families are remaining home. Meron Wondwosen said she has not yet sent her unvaccinated 6- and 10-year-old children back to their Northeast Washington charter school, and they are accruing unexcused absences each day. Wondwosen is a breast cancer survivor and says her children are in frequent contact with their elderly grandparents.

“Until there is a vaccine, the risk of them being infected with this delta variant is too high to send them back,” Wondwosen said.

Ferebee said he spent the first week of the academic year visiting classrooms across the city. He said mask compliance has been strong, attendance has been promising and children have been excited to be back in classrooms.

“It’s been great to see students in music class and physical education, he said, “and all the elements of school that are so hard to replicate at home.”

Julie Zauzmer Weil, Hannah Natanson and Donna St. George contributed to this report.