New guidelines from the World Health Organization could allow more children in the classroom. (WI file photo)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) recently updated coronavirus-related health guidelines so that District public and public charter schools would no longer be required to limit cohorts to a dozen people, or restrict the movement of students between classrooms.

Mary Shaffner, executive director of DC International School (DCI), said this development couldn’t have come at a better time in her team’s efforts to meet the demands of nearly half of the families seeking a return to campus.

For years, students at DCI had been enrolled in a bevy of courses that placed them along a path to an International Baccalaureate diploma. This arrangement precluded large groups of students from sharing the same daily schedule, much like what the health restrictions once demanded.

“Students need to be able to go from chemistry to math to Chinese [and to] whatever [other] class they have. They can’t be cohorted in groups of 11,” Shaffner told The Informer.

In advance of its January on-campus reopening, DCI administrators upgraded the central air filtration system and increased the frequency of on-campus COVID testing. DCI’s reopening initially involved priority student populations participating in supervised virtual learning.

Over the last four weeks, school leaders have phased in the return of additional students, grouping them by homeroom. Before Bowser’s announcement, Shaffner revealed plans for weeks when teachers would facilitate hybrid instruction to in-class student cohorts and those learning virtually.

However, she said such a strategy wouldn’t have sufficed for students had the District maintained the cohort restrictions.

“Our parents are on a whole spectrum of who wants to come back and who doesn’t, but we want to provide opportunities for families to come back if they want,” Shaffner said.

Following the Trends

Before Bowser’s March 15 announcement, D.C. Health guidelines for school reopenings capped classroom cohort sizes to 12 people, including teachers. Oftentimes, depending on the number of teachers in the class, that means 10 or 11 students would receive instruction.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, in following D.C. Health, didn’t stray from these limitations.

Over the last few weeks, proponents of the guideline updates cited changing public health recommendations, nationally and internationally. Last fall, the World Health Organization set the ideal placement of students at three feet apart, instead of six.

Recent updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have encouraged school districts to implement changes that are consistent with best health practices.

Earlier this month, the DC Charter Alliance, an advocacy organization for the local charter sector, released a list of recommended health guideline updates. They included increasing cohort sizes to between 20 and 30 students, allowing for the utilization of larger classrooms, removing requirements for the cleaning of playgrounds after physical activity and lifting outdoor learning restrictions.

DC Charter Alliance Executive Director Shannon Hodge said the recommendations, among others revealed on March 8, came out of conversations with charter leaders and an examination of how health guidelines changed in surrounding school districts.

“There was a tension between the requests to bring all students back and the public health guidance as of last week,” Hodge told The Informer on Monday. “We’re awaiting the updated guidance to get a better sense of how schools will be able to respond.”

Complicating Community Relations

Before phased reopening launched in District public and public charter schools, charter leaders were immersed in discussions with the Public Charter School Board, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, and some D.C. Council members about possible hurdles in bringing students back to school buildings.

For Dr. Charis Sharp, executive director of the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School (LAMB PCS), the cohort restrictions either nixed or complicated plans of facilitating aftercare and bilingual instruction. Sharp told The Informer that they also placed a strain on LAMB PCS’ academic resources, custodial staff, and relationship with the community.

“Part of what can be frustrating is that those regulations haven’t been consistently and strongly communicated to the public,” said Sharp who recounted the installation of an upgraded state-of-the-art HVAC system at LAMB PCS’ 14th Street campus in Northwest.

“Parents at our school and others want to know why we can’t open,” added Sharp. “The answer coming from me only has so much strength. If it came from the city that schools couldn’t open without these things in place, that kind of communication would be helpful.”

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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