In the weeks since schools fully relaunched in-person learning, parents and teachers have pressed District leaders for an expansion of virtual options.
Many have taken to social media, attended a D.C. council roundtable and submitted letters expressing their views while others, like Kavitha Kasargod-Staub, have taken more extreme measures.
Out of concern about their safety, Kasargod-Staub has kept her children home and supplemented their education with curricula closely aligned with their coursework.
School officials have since reported her to the Child and Family Services Agency [CFSA}, which set in motion an investigation that includes a home visit and interviews exclusively with the children.
“I’ve been very clear with CFSA [that] it’s about COVID,” said Kasargod-Staub, whose children are enrolled at Powell Elementary School in Northwest.
Kasargod-Staub said her decision to keep her children home stemmed from misgivings about elements of D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) safety plan and school officials’ ability to consistently execute it.
Weeks before the start of the school year, Kasargod-Staub watched closely as school officials, and later Ward 4 D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George, attempted to secure HVAC repairs for Powell.
She said the decision to reopen without giving parents a virtual option doesn’t take into account their concerns about COVID-19 or the severity of the Delta variant.
“We have incredibly high numbers and pediatric beds are being filled up at Children’s National,” Kasargod-Staub told The Informer.
“The mayor is asking me to choose between in-person instruction and the health of my child,” she continued. “We are very committed to our public school and staying and seeing it thrive [but] we are in a very difficult position.”
A Tug of War between the Government and Parents
District law mandates CFSA referrals for cases when students between the ages of 5 and 13 have more than 10 full days of unexcused absences. As of September 22, CFSA received 73 reports of what’s considered potential educational neglect, 43 of which have since been examined.
Out of those 43, a dozen turned into investigations. The other 30 reports currently remain under review by the Educational Neglect Triage Unit.
The group, through interviews with school officials and parents, endeavors to resolve attendance issues and determine if a situation requires child welfare investigation.
If that occurs, a social worker collaborates with the school for an intervention plan and conducts an investigation centered on whether there’s evidence of educational neglect.
A CFSA representative told The Informer that each referral goes through an independent review with consideration of all factors, including parents’ apprehension about COVID-19.
CFSA, in accordance with District attendance laws, has expressed no intention to give deference to parents concerned about COVID-19.
Though DCPS has virtual options available, students can only receive it with an approved medical exemption.
That’s why parents and elected officials have rallied around the call for expanding virtual options. Ward 8 D.C. State Board of Education Representative Carlene Reid recently sent D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) a letter making the request.
Last week, nearly 100 parents and community leaders followed suit, writing individual letters to Bowser and the D.C. Council with a list of demands, including the creation of a virtual option, mandatory vaccinations for teachers, expansion of outdoor learning spaces, punishment for administrators who report parents to CFSA and D.C. Health’s stewardship of contact tracing in schools.
Easier Said than Done
As of September 15, DCPS has reported 656 COVID-19 cases for the academic year. That amount accounts for nearly 40 percent of the COVID-19 cases reported across all District-based schools.
During the D.C. Council’s education roundtable on September 21, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee touted a systemwide strategy centered on prevention, screening and disseminating information. Schools mandate universal masking and social distancing amid HVAC system enhancements and an ongoing campaign to boost vaccination numbers.
In terms of asymptomatic testing, DCPS has pledged to test 10 percent of students per week, particularly those who haven’t received the COVID-19 vaccine.
When a student or staff member contracts COVID-19, schools follow health and safety guidelines outlined by D.C. Health. They also jump-start a contact tracing investigation, notify the school community and initiate a process to clean and disinfect affected spaces.
People who qualify for quarantine would have to have been within six feet of the infected person for more than 15 minutes within two days of that person testing positive.
“I want to acknowledge [that] this school year feels different for our parents,” Ferebee told council members on September 21. “Every aspect has been rethought and our students and staff are working hard to learn new routines and protocols.”
However, a growing contingent of teachers, including David Ifill, said following the new protocol has been easier said than done.
Since the school year started, Ifill, a public school music teacher, has become fearful of contracting COVID-19 in an environment he described as stressful for teachers juggling their responsibility to their craft and new procedures.
As a member of the D.C. Caucus of Rank and File Educators, Ifill has advocated for virtual options, much like what he said DCPS central office staff already have available to them.
“I definitely see kids without masks running around. The three feet social distance is not maintainable,” Ifill said. “Contact tracing is nearly impossible because kids are switching cohorts. It feels like the things [administrators] were trying to do are out of the window. It’s visually frustrating for us but we have to keep a smile on our faces.”