Scheduled Return to In-Person Learning Shrouded in Doubt

Safety Issues Pit Many Teachers and Officials at Opposite Ends

For months, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) have clashed over whether thousands of students would return to in-person learning in the midst of the pandemic.

The battle continued on Tuesday, Feb. 2 upon the reopening of the District’s public schools for Term 3 and the filing of an injunction by the D.C. government to prevent teachers from engaging in a strike and other activities that would complicate DCPS’ plans.

“The well-being of all school staff and students is of the utmost importance,” WTU President Elizabeth Davis said in a statement confirming that she urged every teacher to return to in-person learning.

“That said, if the District of Columbia Public Schools continues to refuse to work with us to ensure the safety of our school facilities, we must continue to discuss ways to protect our health and that of our students. That would include a strike authorization vote later this week,” Davis added.

The tenuous situation came on the heels of a weekend marked by both a snowstorm which postponed the reopening of schools by one day and the completion of arbitration proceedings which found DCPS in violation of at least one aspect of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed by Davis and DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee.

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee in a classroom at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest on Feb. 2 (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee in
a classroom at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest on Feb. 2 (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

While WTU representatives made nearly a dozen allegations, an arbitrator only found reason to penalize DCPS for failing to honor the portion of the MOA specifying that no school should reopen without the completion of a walk-through and school readiness checklist by school officials, an on-campus WTU representative, a parent and other stakeholders.

WTU acknowledged that walk-throughs took place but raised questions about whether all required parties had been involved or if each school had been thoroughly checked.

Documents secured by The Informer cited situations at Coolidge High School and Capitol Hill Montessori, both located in Northwest, and Watkins Elementary School, located in Northeast, as evidence that DCPS needed to tighten its adherence to protocol.

Per the arbitrator’s ruling, Coolidge and Watkins would not reopen until after another walk-through and the completion of a checklist. DCPS would also be required to provide, within five days, school-by-school family demand data including survey data and information concerning enrollment.

Some Parents Still Apprehensive About Returning

Even with the one day delay due to the weather, some parents, concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19 in school buildings, have long expressed a commitment to keeping their youngsters at home.

Jamila Hogan said her decision followed recent reports of a COVID-19 case at Langdon Education Campus where her son had been attending a CARE classroom since November. For her, a subsequent exchange, or lack thereof, on social media with Ferebee sealed the deal.

“I’m not sending my son back but I could have if the chancellor had something reassuring to say,” said Hogan, a Northeast resident and parent of a second grader.

Hogan said while she received an email and phone call from school administrators about the COVID-19 case on January 22, administrators didn’t specify which staff member contracted the virus or whether that person had been quarantined. She later recounted learning about another positive case on January 29.

Last Friday, after Ferebee allegedly blocked Hogan on Twitter, she posted screenshots to Instagram showing the notification that her access to the chancellor’s public account had been restricted. Other screenshots showed the letter Langdon parents received earlier in the week and highlighted the questions she asked Ferebee on Twitter about DCPS’ reopening plans.

When Hogan took to Twitter, she asked Ferebee why schools were reopening for Term 3 despite positive COVID-19 cases at Langdon and other CARE classrooms and city officials’ apprehensions about hosting in-person meetings.

“Many other parents at other sites have voiced these concerns but they haven’t been addressed,” she said. “They’ve been blocked [on social media] or ignored. They’ve used the same social media. I expected a better public relations response to explain how they caught [the COVID-19 case at Langdon] and protected everyone,” she added.

Teachers Allege a Rushed Process

As outlined in the MOA, the dozen members of the on-site safety walkthrough team would either sign a school readiness checklist or notify the school community about the need for a readjustment plan. Less than a week before the start of Term 3, Ferebee told reporters that some schools were still in the midst of walk-throughs.

As of Tuesday, DCPS hasn’t responded to The Informer’s two inquiries about how many of the 117 public school campuses had successfully completed the process. A showcase of safety measures taken at Columbia Heights Education Campus scheduled for that day had also been pushed back to Tuesday morning because of the snow.

Inclement weather notwithstanding, instructor Samantha Brown expressed an unwillingness to return to in-person learning, especially because of what she recounted as a contentious walk-through at Coolidge toward the latter part of January.

The WTU/DCPS arbitration document named Brown as an aggrieved party in the conflict that arose during the walk-through at Coolidge. The document included an allegation that DCPS officials attempted to schedule a second walk-through with her but she experienced an illness. Brown denied that version of events, citing a January 27 email she sent to make her request.

During the nearly two hours that she walked through the Northwest campus on January 25, Brown, an English/special education teacher and WTU executive board member, said DCPS overwhelmingly represented a portion of the group scheduled to tour Coolidge. She later told The Informer that her principal closed parts of the building off to the group and failed to provide a cleaning schedule or documentation of infrastructural upgrades.

Brown said that her field representative wasn’t allowed to attend a closed meeting that took place the following day, during which she brought forth more than two dozen concerns about what she witnessed at the walk-through.

Despite her principal’s assurance that the violations outlined in a letter to the school community would be addressed, Brown said she didn’t receive any concrete timeline as to when they would be completed.

“It was pretty obvious that [DCPS officials and our principal] were hiding things. They wouldn’t give us any work order or proof of any inspection,” Brown said.

“We couldn’t go into the rest of the building. There weren’t social distancing notifications. It’s like they weren’t taking it seriously that we had to notify people about the pandemic and check all areas. They restricted us, even though I brought a copy of the Memorandum of Agreement.”

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