Is it safe to put kids back in classrooms? DC Auditor issues report

D.C. Public Schools and its teachers’ union continue to negotiate over terms that could eventually bring more kids back into classrooms, a debate that’s happening in other school systems around the region and across the U.S.

In an effort to bring city leaders together and help provide as much policy guidance as possible, the Office of the D.C. Auditor worked with Talus Analytics, a consulting firm working with Georgetown University the city has a contract with, to come up with an answer.

Ultimately, the decision reached can be summed up as: maybe.

Part of the problem with making a more definitive declaration is the newness of the COVID-19 pandemic and the drastic steps taken all over the U.S. back in the spring.

Though the so-called “curve” appeared to start to bend as school systems all shut down in the spring, “the school closures were the same as closures of everything else, so you can’t really pull out schools as a single-policy initiative,” said D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson. “We need a lot more research. We don’t know much definitively.”

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The 16-page report does acknowledge there are some preventive steps schools can take to smartly reduce community spread, while also acknowledging it is better to have kids in the classroom.

“What is possible is to weigh the benefits and risks of what is known about the impacts of school closure policy to assess what risk a community is willing to undertake,” Patterson said. “If our community is willing to undertake no risk, then we keep all schools closed. But then, the countervailing risk is the educational losses of the children not having in-class schooling.”

“Every community has to take what they know and do that risk assessment, and figure out, ‘This is more important, if we have all these precautions, if we’re taking as many precautions, then maybe we should have in-school—,'” Patterson added before cutting herself off.

“Those are the kinds of discussions that our policymakers really need to have,” she said in finishing.

It’s something D.C. school leaders and the teachers’ union continue to discuss. The negotiations have been precarious; at times, it’s been suggested a deal was nearly at hand before falling apart.

On Thursday, the head of the teachers’ union predicted an agreement to bring more teachers and students back into classrooms could be reached by the time winter break rolls around Dec. 23. But she said any agreement has to be built on the trust of those willing to step foot in the classroom.

“The chancellor really needs to understand the importance of engaging the stake holders,” said Elizabeth Davis, the head of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “The first step is include the parents in this process, which they are, so they’re going to trust the process of returning to in-person if they are engaged in the process, the development of the plan. And that’s basically where we’re having the shortfalls right now.”

She added that also means getting other school employees, from cafeteria workers to security guards to school nurses, on board as well. “Being a part of the plan would certainly help the chancellor and DCPS develop a plan that is workable,” Davis said.

As of Wednesday, 14 DCPS personnel who are working in person have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 13 personnel are quarantining. One student who had been attending in-person activities has tested positive, according to D.C. data.

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