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For teachers who have been under the gun this year, the rise in COVID-19 cases and four schools’ recent return to virtual learning represent the culmination of poor policy decisions and unrealistic expectations placed on teachers amid staff shortages, large class sizes and the inclination of youth to challenge protocols. 

For music teacher David Ifill, he said it’s been business as usual at his middle school. Without clear guidance about whether students and band members can play wind instruments, he has become increasingly concerned about how to maintain precaution, especially since the rise of the omicron variant.  

“There’s been absolute inconsistency and confusion,” said Ifill, who’s also a member of the DC Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. 

“There’s a lot of mixing of cohorts. This three-feet social distancing mandate has gone out of the window. Administrators say they’re supposed to be masks on at all times [but] there are many complaints about students not having their masks on,” he said.  

Demands Increase to Return to Virtual Learning 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) recently reimposed an indoor mask mandate, starting on Tuesday, Dec. 21 and extending through Jan. 31. While schools haven’t been shuttered before winter break, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Ferebee revealed on Monday that buildings will be closed on January 3 and 4 to provide families enough time to conduct rapid antigen testing. 

By Monday night, DCPS announced that at least nine schools — including McKinley Technology High School in Northeast, Turner Elementary School in Southeast and Bard High School Early College DC — made the move to virtual learning. This followed a similar decision made by administrators at Whittier Elementary School in Northwest to implement a school-wide transition to virtual learning that would last until Dec. 22.

The decision has angered parents and teachers at other schools who made the call for system-wide closures. Ida B. Wells Middle School reported seven COVID cases within a week. Other schools that reported COVID-19 cases included Simon Elementary School, Janney Elementary School, J.O. Wilson Elementary School, Anacostia High School and School Without Walls

A petition currently circulating online demanded that DCPS pivots to virtual learning during the week leading to the holiday break. Some people who signed the petition called for the extension of virtual learning until at least the first half of January. In a December 16 letter sent to Ferebee, D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson called for the expansion of virtual learning and access to personal protective equipment, along with DCPS’ plan of action. 

However, Mendelson stopped short of advocating for school closures. Days later, Prince George’s County Public Schools [PGCPS] announced a full return to virtual learning in response to rising COVID-19 cases which elicited concerns about additional pressures placed on District teachers with students enrolled in PGCPS. 

At the beginning of the month, COVID-19 cases recorded in D.C.’s public, public charter and private schools surpassed 2,000, with elementary students representing a significant portion of those who tested positive for the virus. On Dec. 16, DC Health reported 844 new COVID cases within a day, which brought the District’s total to more than 71,000. These developments follow the ascent of the omicron variant and Bowser’s initial reversal of mask mandate

Though Bowser and Ferebee have remained adamant about keeping schools open, DCPS central office has reportedly allowed school administrators discretion in deciding whether to pivot to virtual learning. In a December 15 tweet about Whittier’s transition, Ferebee espoused a commitment to maintaining consistency.   

“The health, safety and well-being of our DCPS community is my top priority,” Ferebee said. “This is not a decision we made lightly, as we know the benefits of in-person learning for our students. We continue to monitor the increased number of cases at schools and robustly implement our health and safety protocols.”

‘The Mayor and Chancellor Have No Idea …

The degree to which the aforementioned statement rings true has been challenged by several teachers, administrators and public officials, most recently at a D.C Council hearing about teacher and principal turnover. 

Steve Donkin said his colleagues at Cardozo and other middle and high schools across the District have found difficulty tending to their job and upholding COVID-19 protocols. This rings especially true when it comes to student COVID-19 testing because students often eat and drink within an hour of a scheduled salvia test, which compromises the test’s accuracy.  

Other times, the contractor conducting the test cancels at the last minute. 

Though he emphasized the benefits of in-person learning for instruction and student morale, Donkin said several hurdles have impeded schools’ ability to keep young people safe. With the onus often placed on teachers, he said the higher ups have ignored how staffing shortages have stretched teachers thin and drained them as they attempt to juggle their academic responsibilities and fidelity to COVID-19 protocols. 

“The mayor and chancellor clearly have no idea what’s happening in schools,” said Donkin, a science teacher and Washington Teachers’ Union building representative at Cardozo. 

“Students like to get close to each other,” Donkin said. “They don’t like to wear masks all day. It’s a universal experience to keep reminding students to cover their face and we get tired of it. City leaders led the public to believe that the rules would be easily enforced with fidelity. We knew from the get-go it would be impossible but they kept repeating this myth.” 

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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