DC Public Schools [DCPS] recently followed its counterparts in surrounding jurisdictions by ending the indoor mask mandate.
The decision, announced by Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee on March 11, angered parents who said the mask mandate provided an extra layer of protection to immunocompromised children and elementary students unable to take the COVID-19 vaccination.
While many teachers had similar sentiments, Washington Teachers’ Union [WTU] President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons said health and safety standards outlined in the Memorandum of Agreement [MOA] signed by WTU and DCPS will ensure that public school officials create an environment of greatest benefit to students, teachers and staff.
“Teachers, students and staff will be tested when they come back from spring break. We want to make sure we’re monitoring the HVAC systems in schools and we’re keeping up with cleaning protocols,” Pogue-Lyons said.
“We want to make sure people are asking [COVID-related] questions at the door and teachers are receiving test kits at home. Those protocols and procedures have to be followed because we’re in a pandemic. Teachers said they’re nervous but can still deal with it as long as we follow protocols and procedures put in place.”
On Tuesday, Pogue-Lyons participated in a weekly meeting with Ferebee, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and others. That’s where she said she relayed qualms that WTU building representatives had with the implementation of health and safety procedures.
Not long after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) made indoor mask wearing optional, DCPS expanded the capacity of spectators at outdoor sporting events and announced an end to the outdoor mask mandate. Pogue said many teachers, in the days before Ferebee’s announcement, expressed hopes that the mask mandate would at least stay in place until after spring break.
Since the start of the school year, Pogue-Lyons and other WTU leaders have continued to refer to the MOA as the guiding document for DCPS central office officials. While the document focused on social distancing, consistent cleaning and ventilation as some of the tenets of ideal learning conditions, some District students and parents said school officials haven’t been holding up their end of the bargain.
At one of the District’s most populous high schools, students continue to complain about the lack of soap in bathrooms and administrators’ reluctance to alert parents about on-campus COVID cases. It has gotten to the point that some parents, like Linda Campbell, have reached out to administrators demanding answers and greater transparency.
In the aftermath of Ferebee’s announcement, Campbell continues to advise her daughter to wear her mask, maintain a safe distance from other students and wash her hands. She also continues to advocate for a viable hybrid option that would allow students to keep up with their studies in the event they need to quarantine.
The status quo, Campbell said, has put young people in imminent danger.
“DCPS is playing Russian Roulette with our children’s lives and safety and not taking the precautions they’d use for themselves,” Campbell said. “A lot of the government buildings aren’t at full capacity yet they have our children [in school buildings] with no mask on. It brings an amount of perspective on what they think about our children and how much they care about their safety.”
As of March 9, DC Health has reported more than 8,400 positive COVID-19 cases in District public, public charter and private schools since the start of the school year. Nearly half of the cases reported occurred in public schools. Public charter schools account for nearly 40 percent.
Meanwhile elementary schools account for 50 percent of the cases. Three-out-of-four people who’ve contracted the virus within school settings are students.
Many District charter schools, including Mundo Verde Public Charter School in Northwest, kept its indoor mask mandate in response to parents’ concerns about young people who stand at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19.
Sarah Acors, the parent of a third grader, credited administrators for listening to community members and keeping them in the loop about possible policy changes.
“You have to be mindful of how you’re implementing things,” Acors said. “That’s what I appreciate about our school. Administrators are mindful of parents who want masks to go away by [lifting the outdoor mask mandate on campus] and keeping the indoor mask mandate for parents who want students to adhere to wearing masks.”