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Less than a month after students returned to the classroom, D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) COVID-19 preparation and protocols are being tested.
With more than 100 cases reported systemwide, and nearly 850 DCPS students in quarantine, attention has pivoted to on-the-ground conditions.
At John Hayden Johnson Middle School, where 80 percent of the sixth grade — nearly 130 students and teachers — is under quarantine, parents continue to raise concerns about incomplete learning spaces and the difficulties that teachers face in adhering to social distancing guidelines.
While the Panther Guardians Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) acknowledged that administrators at Johnson promptly identified the COVID case and notified parents, they called on DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and the community to support the school in completing, and installing security doors for, the entire fourth floor of the building, where sixth graders attend classes.
“It is our fear that without completion of the unfinished classrooms and other half of the 4th floor, the teachers, staff, and 6th grade students will be forced again to try and maximize social distancing in a limited space, increase class sizes, and ultimately present the same risk of high close contact should a 6th grade student or team member test positive for COVID-19,” the Panther Guardians PTO said in a statement.
“Additionally, the lack of outdoor furniture and broken outside gate by the field limits [the Johnson Middle School] administration in their efforts to create a safe and effective outdoor space for students to increase social distancing during lunch periods,” the statement continued.
DCPS told The Informer that, in regard to Johnson Middle School and 36 other schools, officials followed its three pillars for a safe and healthy learning environment, which includes informing the school community of positive COVID cases.
Last month, the Washington Teachers’ Union and DCPS finalized a memorandum of agreement (MOA) despite some teachers’ apprehensions about possible overcrowding, lack of working HVAC systems in some schools, and the degree to which guidelines have taken into account the severe impact of the COVID Delta variant.
The MOA, the second of its kind since March 2020, mandates a safety walk-through of the premises at least one week before classes start.
Weeks before the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the Panther Guardian PTO raised concerns about the sixth-grade space, pushing for, at the very least, the completion of two sixth grade classrooms before Aug. 30.
As of Sept. 12, the request had not yet been fulfilled.
On Sept. 8, D.C. Health reported a COVID daily case rate of 23.6 per 100,000 District residents.
Data compiled by the agency since last summer show Bancroft Elementary School and Garrison Elementary School in Northwest and Hendley Elementary School in Southeast among the District public schools with the highest number of COVID-19 cases recorded since August 2020.
Since the ascent of the Delta variant, community members have pressed for an expansion of virtual learning options in the District public and public charter schools.
Before the school year started, nearly 130 DCPS students applied for such accommodations. To the chagrin of parents, the virtual option wasn’t available without a medical waiver.
In a statement to The Informer, the office of the deputy mayor for education, citing local and national health guidelines, said DCPS will, for the time being, continue in-person learning for students who don’t qualify for a medical exemption.
However, Ward 8 State Board of Education Representative Carlene Reid, who has spoken about the virtual learning option throughout much of the spring, pointed to the situation at Johnson as enough of a reason to make it more available.
Last month, she sent a letter requesting Bowser do so.
“We are asking to have virtual options to empower families to make decisions about their child based on the number of COVID cases and the information we have about the Delta variant,” Reid told The Informer.
“What I and other advocates have testified about in May has come to light. It’s disappointing that the administration has not pivoted with the new information we have about how the virus is spreading.”