Even with the limited school reopenings so far, the disproportionate number of teachers appearing in covid-19 obituaries is striking. But much worse lies ahead if large school districts buckle to pressure to reopen without necessary protections. The most reckless plan in the nation, unfortunately, comes from the nation’s capital.
This week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that she would reopen schools, starting Nov. 9, with plans for 75 percent of kindergarten through fifth-grade students eventually to attend school five days a week — without any testing at all. The District, scene of a covid-19 outbreak that has overrun the White House, is the first big-city school system to propose a plan without testing, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, tells me.
It gets worse. In recent days and weeks, the revered longtime principal of D.C.’s top-ranked high school raised concerns with school administrators about reopening an elementary school, which he also oversees, despite poor ventilation in its 93-year-old, unrenovated building. For this — protecting students and teachers — Richard Trogisch was suddenly removed from all of his positions on Wednesday.
Students, teachers and parents erupted in protest. D.C. Public Schools responded with a statement saying that his abrupt removal, in the middle of a pandemic, was because of an unspecified personnel matter (years ago he helped one of his teachers get a pre-K slot for her child so she could keep teaching), but nobody is deceived.
Sito Narcisse, head of secondary schools for D.C., acknowledged during a video-conference meeting with outraged parent representatives Wednesday night that the removal of the principal was “not in the best interest” of students. Instructional Superintendent Jerry Jellig agreed: “I don’t think any of us thought this was in the best interest of anyone. … There are times when you simply can’t make decisions based on the best interest of kids, teachers." I obtained a recording of the meeting from the school’s parents association, of which I am a member.
Bowser’s office ignored multiple requests for an interview. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee’s office sent me previously issued statements and refused to answer questions about testing and air quality. Trogisch declined to comment, on his lawyer’s advice.
Trogisch is a visionary educator, responsible for building School Without Walls, the magnet high school he ran for more than a decade, into an academic powerhouse despite constant budget pressure. This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked his school, with 57 percent minority enrollment, the best public high school in D.C., second in the metropolitan area, and 73 of 24,000 public high schools nationwide.
Trogisch has sharp elbows, but he is beloved by students, teachers and parents — and effective. A few years ago, D.C. gave him the task of saving a primary and middle school that faced closure because of underenrollment; both are now oversubscribed.
But administrators’ views of Trogisch changed when he raised persistent questions to top administrators about air-quality problems in his elementary school, with its creaky radiators and window AC units and mold problems. To reopen classrooms safely, experts say, ventilation systems must be able to replace air at least three times per hour, and ideally six. In most schools it’s about 1.5 — and undoubtedly worse in Trogisch’s school.
D.C. provided him no answers (it promises to use high-quality air filters, which are of limited use if air doesn’t circulate). When anxious teachers pressed visiting contractors for answers, they threatened to call the police. “We’ve had ventilation problems for years,” parent Cedric Hendricks, head of the Local School Advisory Team, tells me.
The School Without Walls student government complained that Trogisch’s removal “destabilizes the school community in this already chaotic time.” The parents association has demanded Trogisch’s reinstatement.
D.C. has reasonable plans for distancing, small groups, masks and procedures for when people test positive for covid-19 in schools — but no plans for testing. According to research by Duke University and the Rockefeller Foundation, D.C. should test every student and staff member once a week at current infection levels to maintain control. If cases continue rising at the rate they have been, the researchers tell me, twice weekly tests will soon be necessary.
AFT’s Weingarten tells me D.C.’s handling of Trogisch is “the actual worst” behavior by schools nationwide. “He’s a hero because he’s calling out what needs to happen for kids and educators to be safe,” she says.
But recklessness goes well beyond the capital. Though New York City has reopened schools responsibly, and Florida counties Duval and Broward have reopened schools with testing, other school systems, notably Fairfax County’s in Virginia, propose to reopen without testing, she says.
D.C. (and others emulating its recklessness) asks parents to send their children into the teeth of the pandemic, without testing, to breathe unsafe air. Firing truth-tellers won’t hide the disastrous consequences.