Within the past week, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) teachers have spoken out against the central office’s plans to start in-person instruction next month, saying that officials haven’t taken into consideration their concerns about on-site conditions and the manifestation of safety measures outlined in a checklist circulated by the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU).
With Nov. 9 quickly approaching, some teachers like Patti Nelson have applied for a waiver to continue teaching virtually. Nelson, an art teacher with a preexisting condition, expressed worry about learning the status of their application until two weeks before the start of Term 2, a time window too narrow for the veteran teacher without a contingency plan.
Though Nelson said they miss their students, some of whom they’ve given supplies during socially distanced visits, they’ve maintained that DCPS hasn’t instilled confidence in its ability to ensure a ventilated, socially distanced, and fully equipped learning environment in schools across the city.
“The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has not been signed and there’s no follow-up,” Nelson said in reference to a document that they said has been the center of discussions between WTU and the DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee.
“DCPS is talking about upgrading HVAC systems, but what does that mean? There’s a reason why teachers don’t feel comfortable in the building,” said Nelson, a teacher at Barnard Elementary School in Northwest.
“If DCPS wants to put us at ease, sign the MOU. There’s nothing in there that no one should be afraid to sign. I’m extremely high-risk, but if I feel safe, and my immunologist feels that it’s safe, then I want to go back into the classroom.”
Though school leaders said they spoke with union leaders, WTU along with other unions representing nurses and principals said they haven’t been included in discussions about reopening. Ferebee’s Oct. 5 announcement followed the release of a survey to teachers amid what’s been characterized as an ongoing battle with WTU about the reopening plan.
The WTU’s safety checklist includes questions about whether schools will have an adequate amount of personal protective equipment, school nurses, and ventilation, among other stipulations. The document was approved during the latter part of September, shortly before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the city’s public health emergency to the end of the year.
The stakes raised last week with the D.C. Department of Health’s report of the highest number of daily COVID cases in four months. However, that hasn’t stopped a growing contingent of parents from requesting a scenario, much like what’s been offered at charter schools, where students, particularly those with the greatest need, can engage their teachers and peers.
The phased reopening plan that Ferebee presented on Oct. 5 would allow elementary students to enter a lottery system that determines their eligibility for 21,000 available classroom seats. DCPS officials said families of children selected in the lottery have a chance to accept or deny their space.
While they set a goal of Oct. 23 to finalize arrangements for families and teachers who requested an in-person seat and a waiver to continue virtual learning, respectively, some teachers like Langston Tingling-Clemmons questioned whether the central office would be able to meet the demands of both groups.
Earlier this summer, Tingling-Clemmons, a U.S. history teacher at Jefferson Middle School and one of two WTU representatives on his campus, counted among those who organized a campaign that pressured Bowser and Ferebee to delay the release of their reopening plans.
Though the middle school instructor has another few months to think about whether he would return to the classroom, he empathized with his colleagues across the city currently facing that dilemma.
“It’s extremely worrisome because I think some people are going to have to make decisions under duress which isn’t fair, and I think that’s what it will come down to,” Tingling-Clemmons told The Informer.
“Some people might be financially fortunate enough to resign or take a leave of absence, and others might not have that luxury,” he added. “People might make the decision, regardless of that if they can’t reconcile putting their lives at risk.”