A school health safety professional greets students at Calvin Coolidge Sr. High School in Northwest with hand sanitizer, just one of the procedures in place to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
A school health safety professional greets students at Calvin Coolidge Sr. High School in Northwest with hand sanitizer, just one of the procedures in place to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

As District students continue to make their return to the classroom for the first time in more than a year, some parents are still expressing their apprehension about COVID-19 and what they perceive as the lack of safety protocols.

One parent in particular said she’s ready to pull her two children out of public school and explore other educational options. “D.C. is trying to move too fast to normalcy,” Robbie Woodland, a Southeast resident, told The Informer.

Woodland, who lost five close friends and relatives to COVID-19 this year, recounted attending a back-to-school event at Excel Academy Public School and seeing children running around without masks.

She also said that, despite the principal’s assurances about safety, teachers often took off their masks to speak with parents.

With her younger daughter starting kindergarten at Excel, and her older daughter entering her senior year at Dunbar High School, Woodland continues to mull how to appeal to school officials for virtual options.

“There aren’t enough preventative measures in place,” Woodland said.

“All around the world, schools that opened back up had students test positive for COVID. I’m leaning more toward my children not returning to school [but] they want you to go as far as getting a doctor’s note, which is unfair.”

Demands Increase for Virtual Options 

Throughout much of last week, DC Health reported nearly 600 new COVID-19 cases.

Per D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), 150 parents have petitioned for virtual learning options within the public school system. That process, some criticized, has a stringent focus on students with medical conditions, and not those with safety concerns.

Last week, Ward 8 D.C. State Board of Education Representative Dr. Carlene Reid sent a letter to Bowser requesting the expansion of virtual options in the public and public charter schools. D.C. Councilmember Robert White (D- At large) followed a similar course of action.

Both letters cited parents’ concerns about safety, especially among students who haven’t reached the age of eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite apprehensions about COVID, Bowser and DC Public Schools [DCPS] Chancellor Lewis Ferebee continue to affirm reopening schools as the best course of action. This happened as teachers complained about broken HVAC systems on social media and an online petition to expand virtual learning quickly gained traction.

On Monday, as the hundreds of District students returned to school, Bowser, Ferebee, and other district officials celebrated the modernization of Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast and encouraged drivers to slow down for students walking to school.

Bowser later likened DCPS’ first day of school to the Superbowl and called Ferebee the quarterback of the full transition to in-person learning.

In his comments before dozens of community members, Ferebee acknowledged those who weathered more than 18 months of unprecedented adjustments.

“We’re here because of the resiliency of our community fighting through this public health emergency to get our students back in school,” Ferebee said.

“What we did works and we hope to scale that up [this year with] preventative work, HVAC enhancements, masking and rapid testing,” he continued. “Let’s do everything possible to make this day the first of many days we have.”

Students and Parents Express Cautious Optimism 

In recent weeks, officials have launched a campaign to increase vaccination among adults and students who are of age. Vaccination numbers in majority-Black communities have been among the lowest in the city.

On Saturday, Serve Your City DC and Ward 6 Mutual Aid hosted its second annual Back-to-School Bash at the Eastern Market Metro Plaza where students could receive vaccinations, bookbags, refurbished laptops and other resources.

District parent Laronda Felder, who strolled through the different tables with her son, a second grader, counted among the hundreds in attendance that afternoon. Despite concerns about COVID, she stood ready for the full transition to in-person learning.

“We’re going to go in suited and booted, take our precautions and kick COVID’s butt,” said Felder, a mother of three students in District public and public charter schools.

“I’ve been teaching my son about safety and how real the virus is. He’s been washing his hands and wearing his mask.”

In Northwest, as Wilson High School opened its doors to more than 1,800 students, some young people like Anari Shivers espoused the need to play it safe and question processes that unfold during the school day.

“We’re really going to be crowded with a bunch of students. I would like to see everyone go through a screening,” said Anari, a tenth grader from Southeast.

“I think teachers and administrators will be honest to a certain extent so we won’t panic, but I feel like they won’t be at the same time just to save the school’s reputation.”

Earlier this month, Bowser announced that asymptomatic students will go through random COVID-19 testing. The Washington Teachers’ Union also finalized its memorandum of agreement with Ferebee, which outlined the conditions under which public school educators would carry out their jobs.

To prevent the spread of COVID, DCPS officials outlined a layered approach, including universal masking, HVAC enhancements and upkeep, along with testing.

Schools will also utilize outdoor space as much as possible, while the youngest students will stay in their classrooms during lunch. School administrators will provide on-campus mental and behavioral support as part of what’s been described as a “whole child-centered approach.”

Though District parent Ashanell Smith remains on the fence about sending her Pre-K3 daughter into school, she said learning about the protocols has somewhat put her mind at ease.

“The parents can’t come into the school [so] that keeps us from transferring stuff,” said Smith, a Southeast resident.

“Students stay in one classroom so I might be okay with that. My daughter went to daycare so she knows how to go in classrooms.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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