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D.C. Teacher Dies of COVID-19, Fuels Union Battle Over Schools Reopening

The ongoing battle between D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) about reopening schools centers on whether protocols put in place could curb the spread of COVID-19.

A week into Term 3 in-person learning, WTU leaders say they remain resolute in expressing their misgivings, especially after the coronavirus-related death of Ballou STAY cosmetology teacher Helen M. White.

“What I’m concerned about is that some of the principals are taking liberty and playing with fire by denying teachers from continuing virtually and causing people to get sick,” WTU President Elizabeth Davis told The Informer on Monday.

White, a Ballou STAY teacher of 14 years and mother of five, died over the weekend. She contracted the coronavirus last month while teaching in a CARE classroom and spent her final weeks fighting the virus.

WTU leaders allege that administrators didn’t immediately notify the school about the positive coronavirus case.

“Why is it that we haven’t heard anything from that school about a case and the individuals who came into contact with her?” Davis said. “There are a number of principals who feel pressured to follow the directions of the chancellor and will do anything to make it work. The process by which cases are reported [by DCPS] is slow and secretive. This puts everyone at risk.”

The Bigger Picture

DCPS guidelines stipulate that when students or personnel contract COVID-19, administrators have to notify community members and the D.C. Department of Health.

Positive individuals would have to work from home and contact their health care provider. At the same time, administrators disinfect the premises and guide people who’ve been in close contact through the quarantine process.

DCPS would also have to consult the health department about situations warranting the shutdown of school buildings.

In response to an Informer inquiry about the circumstances surrounding White’s death, DCPS cited a Jan. 22 letter from Ballou STAY Principal Cara Fuller notifying students, parents, and community members about a positive coronavirus case.

A Monday communique to the Ballou STAY community obtained by The Informer announced White’s death and encouraged grief-stricken students to seek school-sponsored support.

Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 cases among participants of in-person school activities have steadily increased. As of Friday, the number of cases reported among DCPS personnel working on school campuses had reached 105, while the total number of students who have tested positive has surpassed 30.

In total, 100 DCPS students and personnel are in quarantine.

Despite reservations from some teachers and parents, most of the District’s public schools reopened earlier this month with varying student and teacher attendance levels in each building.

Capitol Hill Montessori, Coolidge High School, and Watkins Elementary School started in-person learning days later than planned after school administrators conducted a second safety walk-through, as mandated by an arbitrator during a hearing in January.

Meanwhile, School-Within-School at Goding in Northeast and Johnson Middle School in Southeast also reopened later because of building repairs and a gas leak, respectively.

While DCPS survey data estimates student demand for in-person learning to stand among 6,000 and 9,000, WTU leadership says that attendance last week doesn’t reflect such a demand.

Following Protocol

Similar debates about when and how to reopen schools are taking place in other districts across the country.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that school districts collaborate with local and state health officials to determine how to promote behaviors that reduce the spread of COVID-19. Other considerations focus on maintaining healthy environments and operations and preparing for when someone gets sick.

Health department guidelines require schools to conduct daily health screenings of students and staff members. They must also have a process in place to isolate those who feel sick during the school day. Additionally, schools must encourage hygienic practices and have sufficient amounts of soaps, disinfectants, alcohol-based sanitizer, paper towels, and tissues.

Students and staff with pre-existing medical conditions are urged to consult with their health care provider before participating in in-person activities.

Long before the pandemic, however, some students of White, including a woman named Ashley P., often questioned whether Ballou STAY could have been more sensitive to a medical condition that often required White to leave the campus early or take off some days.

Under White’s tutelage, legions of students, including Ashley, completed Ballou STAY’s Career & Technical Education program and acquired a cosmetology operator certification. Ashley, who asked that her full name not be used, said White cared deeply about her students’ academic, social and emotional well-being.

In the weeks before White’s death, Ashley recounted learning from a friend that White contracted COVID-19 and had been absent from the CARE classroom for more than two weeks. By that time, White’s students, including Ashley’s mother, completed their work independently during in-person sessions.

Ashley said her revelation not only angered her mother but compelled her and other students to demand a meeting with school administrators.

“Ballou STAY didn’t tell anyone that students were exposed to COVID,” said Ashley, an alumna of Ballou STAY’s cosmetology program and a certified cosmetologist of one year.

“Not only is my mom in the school, but she watches my children,” Ashley said. “If the administration had let us know that a teacher got exposed to COVID, my mom would’ve gotten tested, but my children were exposed, and that’s a big problem for me. Ballou STAY put a lot of lives in jeopardy, and they haven’t told students to this day.”

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