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D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) recently announced an expanded surveillance program that includes targeted weekly testing for PK-3 and PK-4 students, extension of safe return protocols into April, the mailing of home test kits for close contacts and ramping up weekly asymptomatic testing.
However, it remains unlikely, at least for the time being, that officials will develop metrics that determine, across the board, what proportion of student COVID-19 cases schools should accumulate before they pivot to virtual instruction.
“School districts have abandoned those processes [that determine] when a school might go virtual,” DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said.
“This affirms why [the] situations are on a case-by-case basis. Parents will be notified. Our virtual experience should be guided by health authorities whenever they recommend a transition to virtual. The consideration is educational continuity,” he said.
To prevent interruptions to in-person instruction, families of PK-3 and PK-4 students had to upload weekly negative COVID-19 test results to DCPS’ safe return web portal beginning Jan. 18. As for other students, they would only be required to test upon their return from break in February and April.
Ferebee also revealed a test-to-stay program for close contacts of cases reported in school, the details of which would be revealed later.
In the aftermath of a COVID-19 surge that induced a pivot to virtual learning at several schools, teachers and elected officials have spoken about the need for a metric that determines when a school makes the pivot to virtual learning. Currently, individual public schools make that determination, in conjunction with DCPS, after examining the number of staff members who test positive for COVID-19.
Earlier this month, Jefferson Middle School counted as the sole District public school that pivoted to virtual learning for 10 days. Some charter schools, including DC International School in Northwest, followed similar protocols when a significant number of teachers reported positive COVID-19 test results.
Since then, as the omicron variant continues to ravage the D.C. metropolitan area, teachers have taken to social media to report understaffed school buildings and document empty classrooms. Amid a teacher shortage and campaign to pay substitute teachers higher wages, some schools continue to struggle with COVID-19 mitigation.
That’s why, weeks after schools reopened, some people, including Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons, continue to advocate for a metric that guides the pivot to virtual learning. Since DCPS has cooperated in the realms of student and teacher testing, Pogue-Lyons said ensuring consistency ensures that community members in understaffed schools have clarity about when to take drastic measures.
“We need to talk about what the threshold needs to be with the schools,” Pogue-Lyons said. “We can come up with a metric that involves the percentage of staff. The metric would also involve students. If COVID-19 is running rampant through someone’s school, it might be time to turn down the heat a little and [leave] to stop the spread for a little bit.”
As of Jan. 16, teachers and staff members counted among 25 percent of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in District public, public charter, private and parochial schools since the start of the school year. Cases in District school have surpassed 5,100 and continue to climb.
The D.C. Council recently passed legislation requiring 24-hour notice about COVID-19 cases in DCPS schools, regular asymptomatic testing and dispatch of COVID-19 coordinators.
Weeks earlier, D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At large) attempted to introduce this bill as emergency legislation that also mandated a metric for pausing in-person learning. Much to the chagrin of teachers, parents and other community members, D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) declined to place the bill before the D.C. Council Committee of the Whole.
In explaining his apprehension about the COVID-19 metric, Mendelson questioned whether COVID-19 infection rates painted an accurate picture of its severity.
“It was clear to me that the metric sounds good but problematic,” Mendelson said. “Parents opposed having a simple formula that wouldn’t allow for flexibility. People also said case rate is not the right standard. Case rate doesn’t matter but the number of hospitalizations.“