Opinions about the post-winter break return to in-person learning vary among District parents.
While many have grown anxious about their child contracting COVID-19 on school grounds, others say their priority remains the emotional well-being of their children who yearn for interaction with their peers.
Earlier this week, one mother counted among parents who learned that DC International School in Northwest had temporarily implemented virtual learning after 10 percent of teachers at the public charter school tested positive for COVID-19.
Such an announcement, said the mother who requested anonymity, evoked similar news parents received at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 which led to an 18-month virtual learning experience. It also raised the question of whether students will ever get to enjoy some kind of academic continuity.
“Before omicron, I thought that we were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel [with] students going to school and super low COVID numbers, but given the new state of affairs, I’m not so sure,” she said.
“I thought we could eliminate COVID but we might have to learn how to manage,” she added. “I try to do what health experts suggest like social distancing, masking and vaccination. That’s sort of how I manage it.”
COVID-19 Mitigation Strategies Under Scrutiny
After an early Monday morning snowstorm postponed test-to-return activities, students, parents and teachers headed to various venues on Tuesday and Wednesday to take part in a process to determine whether schools would conduct in-person learning.
However, by Tuesday afternoon, DCPS officials scrambled to fix technological issues that prevented families from uploading COVID-19 results to an online platform.
Last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced schools, on a case-by-case basis, would make the pivot to virtual learning if a significant number of teachers tested positive for COVID-19. Per the DC Public Charter School Board, many public charter schools have implemented test-to-return policies while postponing in-person learning until next week.
Since a pre-winter break COVID-19 surge sparked multiple school closures, the issue of how to ensure a safe return has dominated conversations among local leaders, including D.C. Councilmember Robert White (D-At large).
White, who criticized Bowser for not expanding hours of operation and number of public spaces for rapid antigen test pick-up, recently attempted to introduce emergency legislation that compelled DCPS to ramp up COVID-19 protocols.
Provisions of the bill include a creation of specific metrics that determine whether schools temporarily cease in-person learning. the 24-hour release of data about positive on-campus COVID-19 cases and a quicker dispatch of COVID-19 coordinators to schools.
An email exchange between White and D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) later revealed Mendelson’s apprehension about debating the legislation during Tuesday’s legislative meeting.
Flight cancellations prevented White from attending Tuesday’s legislative meeting. However, he continued to champion a bill he described as an extra layer of protection against a virus that shows no sign of slowing down.
“We can’t afford to burn teachers out by asking them to do more and more,” White said. “The COVID coordinators are funded; it’s just a matter of making it happen. We’re two years into the pandemic. Any notion that we can continue the policies we had weeks ago is foolish.”
“Omicron reminds us that the virus is outpacing us so we need to make the necessary changes or we’re going to be dealing with the pandemic for years to come,” he said.
Parents East of the River Have Their Say
Meanwhile, a contingent of DC Public Schools [DCPS] teachers and parents continue to press for a systemwide transition to virtual learning. Even so, Bowser, following her counterparts in other major cities, has affirmed her commitment to keeping children in school, even in the midst of discussions among teachers about a peaceful protest.
At least one parent expressed concern about the mayor’s fervor for testing more than 90,000 young people in the aftermath of a snowstorm that has made acquiring rapid antigen tests even more difficult for residents living in portions of the District that haven’t been cleared by snowplows.
Patricia Stamper, a Ward 7 resident, said District officials didn’t explore various methods of distributing rapid antigen tests to ease the test-to-return process. On Tuesday, she checked on neighbors, walked to and from a local convenience store for amenities and pondered how best to acquire tests for her children without traveling on unsafe roads.
“If the city can mail out books and campaign material, why can’t they mail rapid tests to people’s houses,” Stamper said. “Mayor Bowser can activate Serve DC to mail out to different wards, or even set up hubs to mail rapid tests from each ward. That would’ve been much easier. And the website [to upload COVID-19 test results] has been down. I don’t know [how] they can start school by next Monday.”
Another Ward 7 parent, who requested anonymity, shared similar thoughts. After Monday’s snowstorm, she struggled to figure out how to secure a rapid antigen test for her son.
“I don’t see alternatives to support students [with single parents] or homeless and foster children. Even when the streets are clear, everyone doesn’t drive,” the Ward 7 parent said.
“Are parents still going to have to go to schools to pick up rapid tests? If students can [do a] rapid test on the first day back knowing they can’t stay [if positive], that would be good. But I don’t see enough options and that concerns me a bit,” the parent said.