In the days and weeks leading up to the phased reopening of the District’s public elementary schools, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials have told students, parents and teachers that they’re taking the steps necessary to ensure that school buildings meet the standards outlined on a checklist revealed earlier this month.
One tenet of DCPS’s school building readiness checklist specifically focuses on HVAC system enhancements, a topic of significance for those whose fears about students and teachers contracting COVID-19 stem from what’s been described as ill-functioning windows and central air units in some District schools.
District officials recently purchased thousands of mobile, triple-layered medical-grade HVAC units, 600 of which have already arrived, much to the benefit of students returning to schools with a nonexistent or partial central air infrastructure.
During a showcase of the medical-grade HVAC units, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee expressed confidence that school buildings will be ready by Nov. 9, the first day of Term 2.
Part of meeting that goal, he and other officials said, included making sure HVAC units meet federal health and safety standards, and facilitating inspection of school buildings. “Our expectation is that every item on our school building readiness checklist is completed and inspected before a building opens,” Ferebee told The Informer on Friday before explaining a process through which school buildings receive upgrades, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
“We evaluate [school buildings] annually to ensure they’re up to code,” Ferebee said.
“We’re working to ensure that our Capital Improvement Plan is budgeted for any enhancement needed to completely upgrade and replace systems, and that’s done in partnership with the Department of General Services,” he added.
In recent weeks, proper air circulation and enhancements to water systems counted among the more prominent topics of discussion during the debate about how to safely reopen schools. Shortly before a change in School Without Walls and SWW Francis-Stevens leadership, then-Principal Richard Trogisch criticized DCPS’ move as detrimental to students returning to the aging elementary school for which he’s long attempted to secure upgrades.
The Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) has also been vocal about their apprehension toward aspects of DCPS’ phased reopening plan. Some teachers told The Informer that the central office might be unable to meet staffing needs if teachers aren’t confident about the fulfillment of safety protocols on elementary school campuses across the District.
In the days following Ferebee’s Oct. 5 announcement, those familiar with the process said the move to reopen disregarded ongoing discussions between the central office and the WTU about how to do so safely. WTU leadership would later recall DCPS officials escorting them and representatives of the DC Nurses Association and Council of School Officers off school grounds in the middle of a site visit.
On Friday, Ferebee told reporters, just hours before a scheduled meeting with WTU, that he anticipated reaching a resolution. He also expressed assurance that both parties held increasingly similar perspectives on whether to return, and the conditions under which students and teachers do so.
Other items on DCPS’s school building readiness checklist involve access to personal protective equipment, the development of cleaning procedures, a socially distant arrangement in shared spaces, and the tackling of plumbing needs in conjunction with the Department of General Services.
In September, WTU released a checklist touching on similar points, along with the proper staffing of nurses in school buildings and a preparedness plan in case students contract COVID-19 while on campus.
Whether all of that has, or could be, done before Nov. 9 has been a point of contention between WTU and DCPS. WTU President Elizabeth Davis said DCPS hasn’t quelled concerns about upgrades to facilities, installation of signage, and actualization of other safety measures.
Other points of concern include whether Local School Advisory Teams would be able to make the final determination of a school building’s readiness, the manner in which DCPS would notify the D.C. Department of Health and families about COVID-19 cases, and protocols for shutting down a school.
“DCPS officials have repeatedly stated that air systems will be inspected and updated and that repairs to improve ventilation will be conducted. To date, DCPS has failed to release information on the findings of their analysis and no details on repairs to air systems,” Davis said. “The WTU has seen no evidence that work in our schools buildings has been done to ensure restrooms are fully operational, that hand sanitizing stations have been installed, or that signage reminding individuals to maintain social distancing is in place.”