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D.C. Teachers Make Safe Reopening Their First Priority

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Throughout the summer, Mische Walden, a counselor at John Hayden Johnson Middle School, has helped her school’s summer acceleration program to reacclimate herself to the in-person learning experience.

However, after seeing her colleagues share air filtration systems between classrooms and struggle to remind students to mask up, Walden said her anxiety about being back in the school building hasn’t waned.

“I’ve been stocking up on Lysol and Clorox wipes,” said Walden, who told The Informer she has no plans to congregate in populous spaces during the school year for her safety and that of others.

“It’s unfortunate that I’m not going to be able to interact with students the way I’m used to [but] I have to protect myself and my family,” Walden added. “I’ve been one of the lucky ones who haven’t caught COVID and I want to keep it that way.”

Ongoing Teachers’ Union-Chancellor Talks

Walden and hundreds of other D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) staff members are scheduled to report to work on Aug. 20 and prepare for the first day of school on Aug.30. No vaccine exists for children under the age of 12 and vaccinations among District residents between the ages of 12 and 15 stand among the lowest.

Since June, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee have been in discussions about a health and safety memorandum of agreement (MOA) that would dictate the conditions under which teachers and staff members will carry out their duties.

The MOA will address masking, ventilation, social distancing, contact tracing and accommodations for those who can’t teach in person. Pending plans also include a health and safety checklist that would draw on the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

WTU President Jackie Pogue Lyons said the union has worked at least four days a week in hopes of finalizing an MOA as quickly as possible. They have also attempted to encourage vaccination among community members and collect figures about the percentage of teachers already vaccinated.

“That’s what keeps me up at night — making sure all staff and children can come back to schools that follow safety protocols,” Pogue Lyons said. “We’re pushing and hoping that everyone will get vaccinated. We know that herd immunity would get everyone safe, especially among our youngest.”

Charter Schools Espouse Commitment to Safety 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) recently announced that D.C. government employees, including teachers, must get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 19. Those who choose not to vaccinate for religious or medical reasons must produce weekly negative COVID-19 test results.

The mandate doesn’t apply to charter schools, Bowser told reporters on Aug. 10.

Two days later, nearly 70 public charter school leaders signed a letter sent to Bowser affirming their commitment to ensuring full teacher vaccination and fidelity to health and safety standards. Last fall, at least a dozen charter schools hosted in-person learning in alignment with D.C.  Department of Health recommendations.

Throughout the pandemic, charter leaders have also conferred with local leaders about nurses, COVID testing materials and other resources to support the safe reopening of schools.

On Aug. 23, Rocketship Infinity Public Charter School will conduct in-person learning for the first time since launching virtually last school year. Last spring, in preparation for hybrid learning, leaders at the STEAM-oriented school discussed installing air purifiers while staff members and students underwent regular temperature checks upon entering the building.

As the first day of classes looms, some teachers like Sabrina Hernandez remain steadfast in prioritizing teacher and student safety. When she’s not setting desks in her classroom three feet apart, Hernandez contacts families to ensure they’re confident about what’s to come. Meanwhile, she and her colleagues continue to attend meetings during which school officials discuss weekly COVID-19 tests for vaccinated and unvaccinated teachers.

But Hernandez hasn’t stopped there.

“I have a cart with wipes, disinfectant sprays, face masks and hand sanitizer,” said Hernandez, a first grade teacher.

“Kids will practice getting their hands sanitized and wiping down their desks so they can take ownership of their classroom,” she said. “I let families know we have everything we need [and] we will go over systems and routines.”

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