Mark Moran is a writer who lives in D.C.

Building confidence at the grass-roots level and getting “buy-in” from the community before trying something difficult seem like two of those fundamentals that politicians are supposed to have absorbed in Politics 101. When it comes to the opening of schools during a pandemic, D.C. leaders appear to have skipped the class.

The D.C. Public Schools’ plan for reopening public schools was rescinded on Nov. 2 (a week before the reopening was to have begun) in the face of continued uncertainty about community spread of the coronavirus and dissatisfaction with the plan among the people who might have been presumed to know best: school principals, teachers and parents.

In a September virtual meeting of educators in Ward 3, State Board of Education President Ruth Wattenberg emphasized that ventilation in school buildings was a critical concern and that it was vital for D.C. to have outside inspectors sign off on the safety of ventilation systems to ensure confidence among teachers and parents: “If you don’t have someone independent signing off, you have a confidence problem.” Wattenberg said DCPS has since hired an independent contractor and that she is hopeful that each individual school will be inspected and receive a sign-off.

More generally, teachers and school administrators speaking at virtual meetings in Ward 3 in the fall expressed deep dissatisfaction with what they called a lack of transparency about DCPS planning and the failure to consult with teachers and principals who might have helped navigate the complexities of opening schools in a pandemic. In an open letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, Richard Jackson, president of the local Council of School Officers (representing D.C. school principals), detailed a lengthy list of problems with the DCPS plan.

“Principals and teachers know their students and know who is the most in need,” he wrote. “They have had no voice, no input, and no time to recommend which students are more vulnerable and more in need. They were given 10 hours to confirm the list provided to them after the lottery, and the appeal process which was outlined did not occur. Additionally, results were released to families prior to school input.”

Policymaking with regard to the coronavirus, especially early in the pandemic, has been vexed by uncertainty about the nature of the virus, its lethality and how and under what conditions it spreads. Recent articles have cited studies indicating schools are relatively safe and viral spread among children has been relatively low. However, an exceptional article in the American Prospect dissected the nuances and ambiguities in those studies, and the difficulty with generalizing findings to urban school districts serving populations disproportionately affected by chronic conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

On top of this uncertainty, the task for local officials has been made immeasurably more difficult by inconsistent or irresponsible “messaging” (a terrible modern term for what used to be known as rhetoric and persuasion) at the federal level. President Trump characteristically positioned school reopenings as a cultural wedge issue and did so at political rallies that were themselves an appalling breach of public safety.

All of which is to say that Bowser and DCPS have had an immensely difficult task. No one who cares about the issue does not wish to see students and teachers return to school or denies that there are enormous downsides to remote learning.

Wattenberg says problems with DCPS transparency around reopening stem, ultimately, from the D.C. code that grants mayoral control over virtually all aspects of public schools, with inadequate requirements for oversight and public stakeholder input. “So much of this happens in a space where none of us can see,” she said.

DCPS is said to be looking now at a partial reopening in the third quarter, in February, and has asked schools to submit their own plans within some general guidelines. That seems like a good start.

But schools will almost certainly need additional resources and support to make those plans work. Certainly, D.C. should complete an independent verification of the safety of school facilities as a way of building confidence and trust. When it’s time to open the school doors, consult with the people who know how to make it work and care the most: principals, teachers and parents in the community.

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