Days after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued emergency orders banning indoor contact sports and indoor dining, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee officially reached an agreement about the circumstances under which in-person learning will resume during the pandemic.
Though the memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed by Ferebee and WTU President Elizabeth Davis mandates safety walk-throughs, upgrades to HVAC systems and the completion of readiness checklist before reopening, a stipulation concerning in-person teaching assignments during Term 3 and 4 has raised eyebrows.
“While we have some teachers who are interested in returning, we hope that Chancellor Ferebee would first access [them] before demanding the whole force returns to Terms 3 and 4,” Davis told The Informer on Monday, in reference to point no. 36 in the MOA.
As explained in the seven-page document, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) can give in-person teaching assignments in cases when family demand exceeds teacher availability, to employees who opted out for Terms 3 and 4. The only exceptions would involve those who have already been approved for leave or workplace accommodations.
The same section of the MOA also reserves WTU leadership, starting Feb. 1, the right to revisit the terms of the agreement due to unforeseen circumstances that occur throughout the pandemic. Davis said that, given the rise in local and national COVID-19 cases, and rumblings about a post-holiday resurgence, DCPS leadership has much to consider.
“Term 2 is going to end on Jan. 31,” she told The Informer. “I can’t imagine with the surge in cases that DCPS is going to push to open in February. This is the period that comes immediately after the winter break. Parents are going to be concerned about sending their kids for in-person learning.”
Over the weekend, District health officials recorded nearly 140 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the local positive case total to 26,740.
In early December, weeks after Bowser reneged on launching Term 2 phased in-person learning, data released by District health officials showed that universities, schools, and daycare facilities counted among a significant portion of the sites where COVID-19 outbreaks, defined as cases recorded in the same place within a two-week period, took place.
K-12 institutions accounted for 17 percent of cases in that group. One of those situations involved a student at Tyler Elementary School who participated in an on-campus garden activity. DCPS officials told The Informer that none of the cases recorded involved CARE classrooms, spaces where students engage in distance learning under the supervision of a DCPS employee.
Last month, during a WIN-TV broadcast, Bowser expressed her commitment to reopening schools. She reaffirmed that goal in a Dec. 17 statement, released on the night DCPS and WTU reached an agreement, calling in-person learning the best means of educating students and combatting learning loss during the pandemic.
Chantal Fuller, a special education teacher in Ward 8, pushed back against that assertion, saying that the mayor’s seemingly unilateral decision runs the risk of further alienating teachers who’ve been held to pre-COVID-19 standards, along with marginalized parents and community members.
“There was a lot of energy spent on negotiating Term 2, that when it came to Terms 3 and 4 there was nothing,” Fuller told The Informer. “There’s so much I feel the MOA doesn’t take into account. When it comes to enforcement of these policies, what if the community doesn’t want their neighborhood school to open? This will widen the rift between DCPS and the community, especially in Ward 8.”
WTU and DCPS’ agreement also stipulates that no school should reopen unless the items on the school readiness checklist are completed and the dozen members of the on-site safety walkthrough team sign that document. In the event that a school building has been deemed unsafe for in-person learning, DCPS has to notify the community and present an adjustment plan.
In regards to staffing needs, teacher and WTU leader James Isreal criticized DCPS leadership for not accurately assessing how many elementary school students would return to phased in-person learning. He also said he took issue with the portions of the agreement that put more of the onus on teachers to test for COVID, and not students who would more than likely commute by public transportation.
Even so, Isreal heralded a milestone that was months in the making.
“They needed to come to this agreement to display this positive relationship and show that DCPS and the mayor are working with the teachers’ union,” said Isreal, a teacher at Hart Middle School and WTU vice president of junior high schools.
“You have teachers who want to go in,” he added. “Do I advise parents to send their children back? That’s an individual call, but we do know it’s cold and flu season — and now you add COVID when you have cases increasing.”