A week out from opening the doors to students and teachers for the first time this academic year, the District is reporting that 5,200 students have accepted seats for in-person learning, about a third of the school system’s capacity in this phase of reopening.

But the teachers union and the schools chancellor continue to spar over the plans, despite reaching an agreement in December after the city’s two previous attempts to reopen schools failed. Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis has told the city’s labor board that she believes Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee has breached the agreement that took months to reach.

She said the school system needs to share more detailed student-demand data with the union so she understands just how many teachers are required. Davis said she fears that the chancellor is asking more teachers to return than are actually needed.

The city says it directed schools to offer spots first to students of all grade levels who are considered most at risk for academic failure, and it expects its reported number of acceptances to rise in the days leading up to the Feb. 1 start. Ferebee said he does not have final numbers yet.

Davis also said some of her members do not believe that every building is ready for reopening, citing a lack of confirmation that work orders to repair ventilation systems have been fulfilled.

“We believe these violations must be submitted to an arbitrator for expedited review under the [agreement],” she wrote in a letter to the chancellor.

In addition, teachers and advocates are flummoxed by the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines — which has school staff members receiving their first dose less than a week before they are set to return — and are calling on the city to delay reopening until they are fully vaccinated.

The school system has asked 45 percent of its more than 4,000 teachers to return. Seventy percent of the school system’s 2,800 support staff members also received notices to return; most are assigned to elementary schools.

Ferebee has said that buildings will meet all the safety requirements he agreed to with the Washington Teachers’ Union and that the city has spent $31 million on upgraded safety features, much of which came from federal relief funding. Speaking at a public hearing before the D.C. Council on Thursday, the chancellor mentioned twice that President Biden has called on schools to reopen — even as daily case numbers remain high.

“We have all indication now is the time [to reopen]. We recently heard from President Biden today, sending urgency to reopen schools as quickly as possible,” Ferebee testified. “Based on our own survey of data, it’s appropriate at this time, and it represents what we know about the science.”

D.C. Council members grilled the chancellor over who would be attending in-person classes and other aspects of the reopening.

Families who live in the District’s low-income wards are less likely to want to return to classrooms, according to city surveys. But Ferebee sought to reassure them and said the plan prioritizes the city’s children who need it most, with 43 percent of students who accepted slots considered at risk, which means they are homeless, in foster care or their families qualify for public assistance. That closely reflects the population of the school system’s 52,000 students — 47 percent of whom are considered at risk. Principals can offer slots to students not in these categories if they have room.

The vast majority of the school system’s students will continue with virtual learning, and council members questioned whether the reopening would worsen their education.

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) asked Ferebee how he planned to build confidence in the plan among families in Ward 8, the city’s ward with the highest concentration of poverty. The chancellor said engagement is important, but he offered few specifics.

Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) asked Ferebee and a health official whether there were any coronavirus numbers — such as a high infection rate or weekly virus cases — that would force schools to close.

“I want to reiterate the point that it’s all about what safety measures that are in place to help protect the community,” said Ankoor Shah, a D.C. health official. “I apologize, I do not have a specific number.”

Building tours required

A key part of the agreement that took months for the city and union to negotiate requires school building tours for community members, teachers and parents, so they can see what safety measures are in place and ask questions. If the school does not meet all the measures on the agreed-upon safety checklist, it will not be allowed to reopen.

On Friday, Sah Brown, principal at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington, led a tour to three teachers, a parent and a State Board of Education member.

Eastern High has a student body of around 730, and Brown is preparing to welcome anywhere between 53 and 196 students back to campus Feb. 1. There will be 18 cohorts of students, with no more than 11 students in each. Each student will be in the building once a week, and Brown told the group that there would never be more than 55 students in the building at one time.

“We thought long and hard about using this entrance,” Brown told them, explaining that they decided to have all students and staff enter through the back entrance, because there was a sink located right by the door. 

In-person learning plans vary school to school, depending on demand and student need. At Eastern, students will only report to school buildings once a week. Many elementary schools will have some students back five days a week.

The Friday afternoon tour group was part of Eastern’s Reopen Community Corps — a committee at each school intended to help decide which students should be prioritized in the reopening plan and what the schedule will look like.

Brown pointed out the portable air-filtration systems in each room and the spaced-out desks with hand sanitizer on them and blue tape around them. He took the group to the boiler room to see the heating, cooling and ventilation system and upgraded air filters that had been delivered.

“Will teachers have a separate lunchtime from their students, so they can keep their masks on while the teenagers eat?” someone asked. Brown said they will.

A teacher questioned whether the signs in the hallway clearly told students they had to walk in one direction.

“And how often will the bathrooms be cleaned?” asked the parent, Heather Schoell, president of Eastern’s Parent Teacher Organization. 

Raymond Woodfork, the head custodian, told them that the bathrooms would be cleaned every 30 minutes. Brown said each cohort of students would be assigned their own bathroom, so they wouldn’t come in contact with anyone outside of that group during the day. 

“High school will look different right now, and it will not be the same experience,” Brown said. “There are structured bathroom breaks.” 

The school system provided schools with four reopening models to choose from.

Eastern focused on freshmen at risk of flunking and seniors who were not on track to graduate. Some sophomores and juniors in certain courses were also invited to return.

The school expects a contained classroom for students with significant special-education needs. Thirty-three of the school’s 150 ninth-graders were invited to return, he said. 

Seniors will participate in distance learning in classrooms, with teachers on site to assist them.

Brown said the school invited 196 students to return but, so far, only 53 have accepted. The school started offering an in-person job-training class for a handful of students in October. He said some students accepted slots after the program began, and he expects the same to happen this time around.  

In all, Brown said, 23 Washington Teachers’ Union members will be returning. Eight of them volunteered to do so, he said. Eighteen support staff members will also return.

The parent and teachers — none of whom received notices to return to the school building Feb. 1 — were not convinced after the tour that the building was fully ready.

Michael Bolds, a 12th-grade English teacher on the tour, said he wanted a better understanding of what the portable air-filtration systems and upgraded air filters actually do. He said it seemed the school had the proper technology in place, but the building needed better signs to remind students of proper coronavirus safety techniques and what direction to walk in hallways.

Brown, who will continue to work in person when the school reopens, said the suggestions were helpful, and he would change the signs.

“It’s things that are feasible to fix, but I don’t think it’s there yet,” Bolds said.

Schoell said her daughter would not be returning to in-person classes, despite being offered a slot.

“I think it’s all smoke and mirrors,” Schoell said of the safety features on the tour. “There have been years of lack of trust — with good cause — especially when it comes to [the city’s facilities agency], and I don’t think this is a good time to forget about that. There’s too much at stake.”