In early 2021, the Washington Teachers' Union held a demonstration outside of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser's home to voice their objection to returning to the classroom. (Courtesy photo)
In early 2021, the Washington Teachers' Union held a demonstration outside of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser's home to voice their objection to returning to the classroom. (Courtesy photo)

As District public and public charter schools continue to solidify COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the new year, several out-of-schooltime partners continue to demand that school leaders maintain communication and transparency about cases to ensure the safety of volunteers that conduct after-school programming.

Over the last few weeks, the ascent of the omicron variant has further complicated a tenuous relationship between District schools and out-of-school partners. 

Since the start of the academic year, several organizations including the Community Enrichment Project (CEP) have struggled to navigate the sea of vaccination mandates, background checks and virtual liability insurance along with a convoluted onboarding process that has decimated their capacity to serve students at Anacostia High School in Southeast and Phelps ACE High School in Northeast. 

“Because of program interruptions, we lose funding and staff,” said Lauren Grimes, founder of the local youth civic engagement program and service provider. By the time Anacostia shuttered in December, CEP staff members had been in the school for a month. 

While she intends to return, Grimes said it remains unclear how or when CEP would be able to do so. 

“We want to be in the classrooms but the procedural changes cause us to never know what happens next,” Grimes said. “We have to be prepared for any scenario. It’s tough for a small nonprofit like ours. We’re one of the organizations on the ground from the community, serving the communities.” 

Organizations Continue On-the-Ground Advocacy

Throughout the pandemic, the more than 60 organizations involved with the DC Action’s Out-of-School Time Coalition identified challenges affecting providers of afterschool and summer programs and determined how best to engage D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the D.C. Council. 

Not only did concerns center on the DCPS clearance process, which has taken at least two months for many volunteers to navigate, but also on providers’ anxiety about entering schools amid breakdowns in communication with school leaders about COVID-19 cases. 

After omicron induced a sudden pivot to virtual learning at numerous schools toward the end of last year, most District schools implemented test-to-return policies. Out-of-school time program leaders counted among many volunteers who passed out rapid COVID-19 test kits last week. 

Within the same week, nearly two dozen District schools reportedly canceled programs.  Most District public schools conducted in-person learning on Jan. 06 after officials collected more than 36,000 families and 8,000 staff members submitted COVID-19 test results. 

Among local public charter schools, administrators postponed in-person learning, opting instead to conduct virtual learning and allow families to self-test and quarantine after the winter break. 

Before DCPS officials announced the extension of test-to-return protocols into the remainder of the school year, teachers have expressed concerns about the health risks involved with not allowing students and teachers to test and quarantine after weekends among friends and family. 

As an anonymous out-of-school time program provider explained, affiliates of after-school programs often walked onto school campuses unaware of the information communicated to staff members and students, including COVID-19 cases and the degree to which they have been addressed. 

“We’re finding out very late that COVID-19 cases are happening,” the program provider said. “Our instructors are susceptible to getting COVID from people who should be quarantined in the first place. We want our young people to be supported but we need to look out for our staff and we want DCPS to be more proactive in that.” 

Striking a Balance to Retain Staff Members

Lupi Quinteros-Grady, president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in Northwest, shared similar sentiments. Since last week, she has been in meetings with staff members who have assignments at the 16 schools where students receive her organization’s services. She described her goal as assessing communication between LAYC staff and school partners to ensure staff members can safely address food insecurity. 

Quinteros-Grady said LAYC members at four out of 16 schools reported the need for better communication, a scenario she said could compel staff members to leave out of frustration if not addressed. 

That’s why LAYC has equipped staff members with cleaning supplies and KN95 masks, restricted access to LAYC headquarters and developed communications plans with school partners with varying policies about school closures. 

“Staff members had to be creative in the relationships they made with administrators in order to access information so they’re aware if they’ve been exposed to COVID,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out these things, support the community and make sure our staff feels safe enough to work in the schools. There’s no protocol and all of these things are chaotic so we’re trying to put the pieces together.”

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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