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Within a matter of weeks, District public and public charter school students will return to in-person learning for the first time in nearly 18 months.
However, rising cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus have sparked concerns among community members, particularly those interacting with middle school students who represent nearly half of the population for which no vaccine is currently available.
‘We do want to be back in school but we’re conscious of the fact that there are variants of the coronavirus,’ said James Isreal, a teacher at Hart Middle School.
Isreal, who also serves as the Washington Teachers’ Union’s vice president of junior high schools, recounted learning that class sizes should be capped at 25 students to adhere to the social distancing mandate of at least three feet.
He said he and his colleagues at Hart have discussed continuing best practices as they relate to distance learning.
Still, Isreal said concerns loom large about COVID-19 contributing to many illnesses that young people contract and spread during the school year, particularly during the winter months.
With the extracurricular activities anticipated to take place in the evenings, he questioned whether custodial staff can thoroughly clean facilities.
“There’s still hesitation and fear about reentering the building full time,” Isreal said. “That’s what concerns most teachers, especially with teens and children under 12 contracting the virus and the new, more contagious, variants.”
Parents Weigh in Amid Policy Changes
In early June, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials informed parents that it would enforce indoor mask wearing during the 2021-2022 school year. In a statement to The Informer, DCPS leadership said it’s assessing layered protections against COVID-19 while continuing to update families about the latest health and safety protocols.
COVID-related guidelines released by the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) mandate the use of a mask, regardless of vaccination status, on the grounds of public and public charter schools, school buses, or anywhere else on which school-related activities occur.
Staff members have been encouraged to have several masks available during the school day. The guidelines also require students and teachers to safely dispose of masks.
In July, more than 180 students designated as participants in summertime in-person activities tested positive for the coronavirus. This happened as infection rates increased throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. When the District experienced a fourfold increase in COVID-19 cases, health officials placed the blame on the unvaccinated.
Amid these developments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines urging vaccinated people to wear masks indoors as an extra layer of protection. This change reverberated throughout several jurisdictions, including D.C. which reinstituted an indoor mask-wearing mandate on July 31. This followed an announcement by President Joe Biden (D) that vaccinations would be required for federal employees.
Over the last year, middle schoolers have counted among the lowest proportion of school-aged youth who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus. Among members of this group and high school freshmen and sophomores, DC Health has reported the lowest vaccination rates.
In July, data released by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education revealed that less than 10 percent of youths between 12 and 15 who live east of the Anacostia River have been at least partially vaccinated, compared to 60 percent of their counterparts in Wards 1 and 2.
Torre Joyner, a Ward 8 parent, said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to her and her son getting the vaccine.
Joyner’s son, a DCPS eighth grader, has a heart murmur and suffers from asthma.
Out of concern about how her son would react to the vaccine, Joyner decided against his getting vaccinated after consulting with doctors earlier this year. Her focus has instead shifted to ensuring that her son’s school has the proper safety protocols in place for students, regardless of their vaccination status.
However, as Joyner told The Informer, school administrators have not communicated their COVID-related safety plans to parents.
“If they can explain to me what’s in the shot, it would help me,” Joyner said. “I’m just trying to understand and do more research. You can still get COVID-19 even after being vaccinated. Everybody’s taking the vaccine at their own risk.”
Taking Proper Precautions No Matter What
Local parent and DCPS teacher Patricia Stamper said she will spend the rest of the summer helping families prepare for the upcoming school year. She unveiled plans currently in the works for a school supply drive she’s leading in collaboration with Ward 7 State Board of Education Representative Eboni-Rose Thompson.
Stamper, however, remains skeptical about whether schools are prepared to receive students, even with guidance from OSSE and DC Health. Her concern stems from city officials taking a lackadaisical approach to combating COVID-19 over the last few months. In her eyes, it has created inequities in preparation across the various schools and school systems.
She also blamed the political climate for fueling ambivalence and resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine.
While she doesn’t endorse a vaccine mandate for students who are of age, Stamper argued that had messaging about the dangers of COVID-19 been more consistent this summer, people would have been more comfortable with getting the shot.
In response to the rise in cases, Stamper has been more thoughtful about where she’s taking her children — a practice she’ll continue once school reconvenes.
“I’m going to make sure the students wear their masks,” she said. “I’m constantly washing my hands, keeping my classroom clean and making sure I have disposable items in my room.”
“My fear is that my son, who will be transitioning from daycare, won’t be able to start school [after his birthday] because of this variant,” she added.