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Since the school year started, local education officials have recounted stories about District public school teachers leaving their jobs out of frustration with health and safety conditions in the classroom and demands placed on them.
Amid a backlog of D.C. Child and Family Services Agency background checks and several teacher vacancies in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), some teachers like Isabella Sanchez have asked DCPS leadership to consider how conducting IMPACT evaluations and standardized tests could further exhaust students and an overextended teacher workforce.
“Students, teachers and principals are still processing this transition back to school and we have accountability measures placed on us,” said Sanchez, a Northwest-based DCPS teacher and affiliate of EmpowerEd, a nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining a diverse teacher workforce.
On Saturday, EmpowerEd hosted the DC Teacher Voice Summit & Festival at the African American Civil War Memorial in Northwest where affiliates grooved to the sounds of JusPaul and other acts while presenting ideas about how to improve the education system.
Sanchez said since September, teachers have struggled to reacclimate students to in-person learning. Other hurdles have involved preparing hybrid lesson plans for when an entire classroom enters quarantine after a peer or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
“With IMPACT coming back and students having to submit test forms, it seems like a lot,” Sanchez said. “Learning in person is easier but it’s looking like things are reimplemented [and] I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.”
Crunching the Numbers
As of Friday, Oct. 22, DCPS reported 85 teacher vacancies, 41 percent of which are part-time, temporary or adult education night school positions.
However, during a committee meeting earlier in the month, the D.C. State Board of Education [SBOE] received data that placed the number of vacancies at 160. According to D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), 133 staff members in 71 District public schools are awaiting clearance as of Oct. 18.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent infusion of $22 million supports aspects of DCPS’ COVID-19 mitigation, including the addition of a COVID-19 strategy and logistics coordinator and recruitment of substitute teachers, the number of which has reportedly been lower than in years past.
The Oct. 13 announcement came amid concerns about DCPS not meeting asymptomatic testing targets and complaints among teachers about juggling various responsibilities.
DCPS central office’s substitute recruitment strategy includes increasing the total compensation package for long-term substitute teachers and appealing to DCPS retirees, associate degree holders and people with two years of teaching experience to apply for the job.
Even so, people like Ward 6 SBOE Representative Jessica Sutter question whether that will suffice.
In speaking to public school teachers, SBOE leadership has learned that in teachers’ absences, some administrators have funneled students into other classrooms, oftentimes against social distancing protocols.
Amid substitute teacher shortages, some administrators and other staff members also took on substitute teacher roles, in addition to their other responsibilities.
“Before the $22 million went out to supplement COVID-19 support, you had principals and assistant principals do the contact tracing so they couldn’t do other things,” Sutter said.
“If you had a teacher and substitute teacher shortage and a principal or assistant principal would step in, they can’t do both things. So, they pull on staff members like librarians and it’s kind of tricky. We’re realizing that schools need more people for their work.”
Teachers Continue to Organize for Better Conditions
An All-Teachers Survey conducted by SBOE earlier this year revealed nearly three out of four teachers felt uncomfortable about returning to in-person learning and nearly half considered leaving the profession. There has since been no release of a similar survey.
Meanwhile, SBOE officials have continued to press for the passage of the Statehood Educational Data Warehouse Amendment Act that would require the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE] to submit annual reports about teacher retention and the racial, gender and age composition of the teacher workforce.
Since the beginning of the school year, many teachers have taken to social media to highlight concerns about on-campus conditions and safety protocols. Some have also joined parents in campaigning for the expansion of a virtual option and the completion of school modification and HVAC projects.
These conversations, in part, have inspired legislation to remove OSSE from mayoral control.
Even so, Bowser has remained steadfast in her commitment to keep children in schools. In speaking about her recent $22 million investment, she called it necessary to ensure the safety of the District’s youngest residents and sustain continuity in COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
“We know that the best place for our students to learn and thrive is in the classroom, which is why we’ve made significant investments in safely opening all of our schools,” Bowser said.
“After a strong reopening, we are focused on supporting our school communities as they continue to implement robust mitigation strategies. In addition to these critical investments, we need every eligible resident to get vaccinated to protect themselves, our students and our families.”