D.C. Public Schools students and teachers line up at Petworth Library in northwest D.C. to receive home test kits for COVID-19. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
D.C. Public Schools students and teachers line up at Petworth Library in northwest D.C. to receive home test kits for COVID-19. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

Thousands of students and teachers spent much of this week braving a winter storm and long lines at local schools and firehouses to pick up and electronically submit the results of their rapid antigen tests – all part of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to safely reopen schools.

Bowser’s plan, which includes a test-to-enter policy for all public schools and most public charter schools, incited fury among many teachers who, for weeks, demanded a systemwide pivot to virtual learning after the Omicron variant forced a string of school closures just before winter break. 

In maintaining their fidelity to in-person learning, Bowser and DC Public Schools [DCPS] Chancellor Lewis Ferebee continued to encourage more than 90,000 District students to submit their rapid antigen tests on time to ensure that officials can determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not schools will conduct in-person learning. 

However, for some people, including a DCPS employee who supports in-person learning, there’s no avoiding disaster with a plan that attempts to please various parties. 

“You can’t serve two masters,” said the high school administrator who requested anonymity. 

The high school administrator, who’s taught in other school districts during the pandemic, referenced situations where education officials passionate about in-person learning conducted virtual learning within the first couple weeks after winter break to allow students and teachers time to quarantine.  

Given Omicron’s severity and the likelihood that some students and teachers visited family over the break, the DCPS administrator predicted an eventual shutdown of several schools. They believe the jump between virtual and in-person learning will further complicate efforts to engage teachers and maintain instructional continuity. 

“Testing more students is going to shut down more schools and if you’re shutting down more schools, more people are going to be impacted,” the administrator said. “DCPS doesn’t have a clear way of dealing with COVID. It will put more work on administrators and teachers [and] make it more confusing to parents as they send their children to school.” 

Teachers Continue to Organize for the Virtual Option

A snowstorm early in the week compelled Bowser to postpone the return to in-person learning by one day. At press time, safe return activities, scheduled for Jan. 3 and 4, were slated for Jan. 4 and 5 with the first day of school to start on Jan. 6. 

Rapid antigen test results collected on Jan. 4 and 5 determined whether schools, on a case-by-case basis, would conduct in-person or virtual learning moving forward. As explained by Bowser at a late December press conference, administrators would make that decision in consultation with DCPS leadership based on the number of teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 at each school. 

Ferebee said in the event that a school pivots to virtual learning, parents would be notified by 8 p.m. of the preceding night. The virtual learning experience would then take place over the course of 10 calendar days. 

Other aspects of the District school reopening plan include: continuation of masking and social distancing policies; a ramping up of on-campus asymptomatic testing in consultation with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education; and greater attention to air filtration systems. 

Those who criticized Bowser’s decision to reopen schools said before the pre-winter break COVID spike, teachers and administrators struggled to uphold COVID protocols amid staff shortages

On Sunday, the DC Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators [DC CORE] hosted a 90-minute virtual town hall during which 250 teachers and parents expressed their anxiety about returning to in-person learning. The event followed the release of a petition for a systemwide implementation of virtual learning and numerous attempts to engage leadership within the Washington Teachers’ Union. 

A poll conducted on the evening of DC CORE’s town hall revealed more than 80 percent of participants disagreed with Bowser’s plan to reopen schools. Concerns ranged from whether city officials could collect and analyze data from 90,000 students in two days to the accuracy of the rapid antigen tests, which have been known to give false negatives to people not showing COVID-19 symptoms. 

DC CORE members also mulled next steps to take, including a wider survey of teachers and forms of nonviolent resistance. 

“Teachers are talking about the dread they’re feeling,” said David Ifill, a middle school music teacher and DC CORE member. 

“They’re upset as to why leaders waited so long and last minute to do this. Leaders didn’t give anyone enough time to properly quarantine and properly mitigate what was going on,” he said. “They’re rushing to put us in overcrowded classrooms. It will open up an explosion of new cases.” 

Deeper Issues at Hand 

In the days since Bowser and Ferebee revealed their back-to-school plan, critics have included D.C. Councilmembers Robert White (D-At large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8) and education consultant Andre Davis, all of whom plan to run against Bowser in this year’s mayoral race. 

As has been the case with other D.C. residents, the mayoral candidates’ qualms lie with the feasibility of Bowser’s back-to-school plan and her earlier lifting of the mask mandate. They have also expressed solidarity with teachers who’ve called for virtual learning since COVID-19 numbers first skyrocketed. 

A District educator who asked to remain anonymous said they’ve long advocated for virtual learning because it’s much needed during the winter months when young people carry germs. Even with her support for that move, the teacher questioned how students, especially those lacking resources, would be able to learn without the appropriate technology. 

“D.C. should’ve done a better job of preparing us to go virtual,” said the teacher who works at a public school in Ward 7. 

“We’re still sharing devices. Certain schools have one-to-one laptop ratios but mine doesn’t. Per usual, it depends on where you attend school. Everyone feels we’re not safe in school but we’re unprepared either way. It’s a lose-lose situation,” the teacher said.

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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