On Tuesday, Jan. 25, longstanding concerns about insufficient COVID-19 mitigation in D.C. schools resulted in scores of disgruntled students to either stay home or leave their respective school grounds during lunch hour.
Young people from at least a dozen public and public charter schools participated in the citywide walkout coordinated by Students 4 Safe Learning (S4SL), a group of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) students who continue to advocate for safer learning conditions now and until the pandemic’s end.
Affiliates of the movement said their demands include greater transparency about COVID-19 cases, metrics which would determine when schools should transition to virtual learning, weekly testing of the entire student body and unfettered access to KN95 masks.
Some remain frustrated with the dearth of more informative conversations which collectively-advised students, parents, teachers and administrators about the Omicron variant that not only compelled a string of closures in December but revealed discrepancies about the total number of positive COVID-19 cases officials found during test-to-return activities earlier this month.
“Students stress about not knowing if they’re going to encounter COVID and with the lack of transparency, we don’t know how much administrators are telling us,” said a Banneker Academic High School student and SFSL affiliate who requested anonymity.
“They’re super secretive about the information that students and parents should [be able to] access. It’s stressful worrying about coming into close contact with the virus and bringing it home to family members. We have to choose between our health and education,” the student said.
Over the last few weeks, students in school districts across the U.S. have walked out in opposition to leaders’ decision to continue in-person learning amid the Omicron variant. Last week, students in neighboring Montgomery County, Md. walked out in demand of virtual learning. Public school students in Chicago, Denver, New York City and Portland have taken a similar course of action.
Tuesday’s protest reportedly took place at Banneker, Dunbar High School, School Without Walls, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Wilson High School and Columbia Heights Educational Campus [CHEC] in Northwest, along with McKinley Technology High School and Ron Brown Preparatory High School in Northeast.
It followed an hours-long meeting between teachers and administrators at Anacostia High School in Southeast about safety concerns. Data compiled by DC Health shows that, as of Jan. 19, District schools have recorded more than 6,000 positive COVID cases this academic year, with public and public charter schools accounting for 90 percent. Wilson High School and Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest count among the schools with the highest number of cases.
Overall, three in four cases involve students.
Several weeks ago, DCPS announced its expanded surveillance testing program in which PK-3 and PK-4 students would be tested weekly with all DCPS students required to submit COVID-19 test results upon their return from break in February and April. Not long after, the D.C. Council passed legislation requiring 24-hour notice about COVID-19 cases in public schools, regular asymptomatic testing of at least 20 percent of the student population and the dispatch of COVID-19 coordinators.
However, the development of COVID-19 metrics that determine, across the board, when schools pivot to virtual instruction, continue to incite great debate. DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) have spoken against them, even as students, teachers and at least one council member continue to demand such a system.
The issue of how to best help students has occupied the D.C. State Board of Education whose leadership includes three student representatives.
Juliana Lopez, a student representative and a junior at CHEC, said interactions with her peers often revealed that students desire consistent communication with and assurance that administrators will consider their feelings about going to school during the pandemic.
“We want to see action and we want to receive an update about our concerns,” Juliana said. “Most of the time, we don’t see actions [in response] to our concerns or we don’t even receive an update. A meeting leads to another meeting but we want to see some follow-up.”