Days before hundreds of public school teachers returned to the classroom, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) and D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Lewis Ferebee agreed on a set of health and safety standards for the new school year.
While Ferebee heralded the pact as a significant step toward a safe reopening, some WTU leaders said this memorandum of agreement (MOA) didn’t have the full support of teachers concerned about overcrowded classrooms and one-sided accountability measures.
“It was just kind of pushed through,” said an anonymous WTU executive board member deeply familiar with the process.
“The teachers didn’t get a clear understanding [and] they still don’t have a copy to save, download, or print.”
On the night of Aug. 18, WTU leadership hosted a virtual town hall meeting about the MOA.
Per union by-laws, town hall meetings serve more as information sessions than opportunities to deliberate and vote on issues.  Critics of the town hall meeting described it as a means to push through the MOA without objection.
Days before the virtual town hall, 20 WTU executive board members voted on the finalized MOA, which they had received just hours prior. Two members abstained while five objected.
Many of the 13 who voted in support of the MOA admitted not having much time to delve into the nine-page document.
The executive board member who spoke to The Informer criticized the MOA for promising what’s already included in teacher’s contracts.
They also said guidelines, taken from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, haven’t been tailored to situations specifically affecting District public schools.
“I’m worried about people eventually getting sick and potentially dying,” the WTU executive board member said.
“Overcrowding is a big concern for me. I’ve also heard about teachers whose air conditioner isn’t working and schools having trouble with HVAC. There was no feedback [about how] these concerns have been addressed.”
Counting Down to Students’ Return
The Informer unsuccessfully attempted to contact WTU President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons.
DCPS teachers, including 700 new hires, returned to the classroom on Aug. 20, less than two weeks before the start of 2021-2022 school year.
In advance of the new school year, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE] issued consent forms for routine asymptomatic testing via saliva sample collection. OSSE also stressed the need for up-to-date immunizations.
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 also provide on-campus mental and behavioral support as part of what’s been described as a “whole child-centered approach.”
Kindergarten teacher Gina Abrams expressed confidence in her school’s safety protocols.
“The building is pretty clean,” Abrams, a teacher at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast, told The Informer.
“I’m just praying that no one gets sick [but] they have masks for the children and other safety protocols in place at the school,” she added. “I’ve worked with the principal at my old school. He’s pretty transparent and I don’t feel like he would try to hide anything.”
Instilling Confidence
WTU officials and DCPS Chancellor Ferebee started working on the first MOA toward the end of last year, before Term 3 of the 2020-2021 academic year started. Negotiations around the newest MOA started in June.
The newest MOA covers teachers’ duties, vaccinations, HVAC installation, COVID testing and screening, along with other aspects of the in-person teaching experience.
It includes a stipulation protecting teachers against retaliation for reporting health concerns. The MOA also outlines the conditions for simultaneous in-person and virtual instruction, while requiring that each public school hosts a safety walk-through at least one week before the start of the school year.
At Stanton Elementary School in Southeast on Aug. 19, Ferebee pointed out that the new MOA requires a COVID isolation room that’s staffed with two nurses. Stanton Principal Harold McCray later showcased that room along with other amenities that have been installed, crediting them with preventing COVID cases at Stanton this summer.
In summing up his feelings about reopening, Ferebee highlighted Stanton as a case study in how to conduct business.
“We know how to do school and do it well,” Ferebee said.
“The best space for students is back in the classroom. We will do a heavy dose of prevention work and do our daily screening in addition to asymptomatic testing protocols.”

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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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