Transcript: DCPS Chancellor on coronavirus impacts on fall year

▶ Watch Video: D.C. public schools chancellor says system working to bring learning back online

The following is a transcript of an interview with DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee with “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan.


Highlights from the interview:

  • On bridging gaps for students without connectivity: “We provide students with devices and we connect them to the Internet. And we’ve been assessing our students access to a device over the summer. And along with that, we’ve also been accessing Internet access. So as of right now, we’ve heard from about twenty thousand students and families and about half of them say they have a device and they have a device that will operate our platforms in. About 20 percent have indicated that they need support with Internet connectivity. So we’ll provide support with LTE devices and also give them access to broadband, high speed Internet. We believe that this is our way of closing the digital divide…once it became clearer that this was going to be an extended period of time, we started to distribute devices and we distributed approximately ten thousand devices, about four thousand hotspots for Internet access in the spring. And students have been able to utilize those devices over the summer as well and carry them with them into the 20-21 school year.”
  • On keeping vulnerable students fed while schools are closed: “We have provided meals for families throughout the spring and this summer we provided close to a million meals, about close to 900000 meals. And we’ve done that with a commitment to providing students with actually two meals so they get a lunch and then they also get a non-perishable breakfast for the following day. And then at several of our sites, we have what we call family grocery meals, where families can get meals and take home for the entire family for a period of time. And so I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to provide those meals. And it’s something, whether we’re in person or we’re solely virtual, that we’ll continue to provide that service to our communities.”
  • On keeping teachers safe during COVID-19: “We’re currently working through that with the Washington Teachers Union. We have provided a operations handbook to our bargaining units here in the District of Columbia with D.C. public schools to guide our thinking and also to provide the details on the cleaning protocols, the procedures for arrival and dismissal, how we will respond to a covid-19 case and our building, and how disaffecting will occur throughout the building and throughout the day. And so all of that is spelled out. And we continue to be in conversation with the local teachers union to address any concerns they have related to safety.”

MARGARET BRENNAN: As of mid-July, schools in one hundred and sixty countries were closed. That affects a billion children around the world, according to the latest figures from the UN here in the US around the country. School districts are wondering how to safely reopen as the coronavirus continues to surge in hotspots. Federal health officials and the White House are pressing schools to reopen for in-person classes if they can. But that’s up to local districts and parents to make the decision on whether safe is safe enough for them. And what exactly does that look like to try to answer some of these tough questions? We want to bring into the conversation our guests today, and that is D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Louis Ferebee. Thank you for joining us.

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So each district is different. Each state is different. How do you make decisions here in the district? Is there a model that you are looking at?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So I had the opportunity and pleasure to collaborate with colleagues across the nation to understand what’s happening in other school districts in the United States. But here in D.C., we leave a lot on the guidance from D.C., who is in tune daily to the infection rate October 19 in the district. They understand transmission, they understand community spirit and our ability to curve the virus here in the District of Columbia. So that’s one part of the other part is ensuring that we continue to learn from and hear from our stakeholders. So a couple of months since the spring, we’ve had a huge engagement effort when we touch over seventeen thousand students, families and staff members to help us think about what a safe and successful reopening to the 2020-2021 school year could look like.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  And so how do you judge safe? is there a specific target range for case positivity in the area? When we’ve asked health officials like the surgeon general, he said anywhere between five and 10 percent is an area of concern.

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So the District of Columbia infection rate has positivity, rate has been relatively low, and we’ve done a great job with curbing the virus here in the District of Columbia. However, there are many other factors associated with community spirit that, you know, I don’t I want to speak to as I don’t have the details and the expertise, but that’s something that we get from D.C. Health and we’re in regular communication with their team around whether or not the conditions are appropriate for in-person instruction. However, I do want to call out the other challenge that we have is to ensure that we have the proper workforce, we have the workforce that is willing, ready and able to also go into the classroom and go into our buildings and provide support and instruction for our students.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So if a teacher has concerns or health issues, what happens to their job?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So we’re currently working through that with the Washington Teachers Union. We have provided a operations handbook to our bargaining units here in the District of Columbia with D.C. public schools to guide our thinking and also to provide the details on the cleaning protocols, the procedures for arrival and dismissal, how we will respond to a covid-19 case and our building, and how disaffecting will occur throughout the building and throughout the day. And so all of that is spelled out. And we continue to be in conversation with the local teachers union to address any concerns they have related to safety.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  From what I understand, Mayor Bowser, who is the mayor here in the District of Columbia, has decided that term one and that’s August thirty first through November 6th, will all be virtual. Not in person. But when it comes to doing this, virtually there are a lot of challenges, including access to a working Internet and Wi-Fi. How do you overcome that, particularly for children whose parents can’t afford spending more or don’t have the ability to access the Internet?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: We provide students with devices and we connect them to the Internet. And we’ve been assessing our students access to a device over the summer.

And along with that, we’ve also been accessing Internet access. So as of right now, we’ve heard from about twenty thousand students and families and about half of them say they have a device and they have a device that will operate our platforms in. About 20 percent have indicated that they need support with Internet connectivity. So we’ll provide support with LTE devices and also give them access to broadband, high speed Internet. We believe that this is our way of closing the digital divide.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So the challenges that you had with that quick shut down when the virus first surged in the spring, will all those problems be fixed by the time you go back to in-person learning?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So in the spring, we distributed devices, but on March 15, we made a decision to close school for a period of time. We didn’t know how long. And the hope was that we were coming back to school. And once it became clearer that this was going to be an extended period of time, we started to distribute devices and we distributed approximately ten thousand devices, about four thousand hotspots for Internet access in the spring. And students have been able to utilize those devices over the summer as well and carry them with them into the 20-21 school year.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Even for some of those families, even these the help that you were providing is still a challenge, particularly if there’s a language barrier. What do you do for children who are trying to learn at home and learn virtually whose parents don’t speak English, for example?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So we again, we learned a lot from the spring and we took a lot of feedback and input to help drive our improvement efforts over the summer to prepare for the 2020 for the school year. Translation was one of these that were called out and we purchased some additional software that allows us to translate content also to build out a team that can also help our educators with translation to ensure that they’re getting content out inappropriate languages to our students, our families. So we anticipate a much better run with that particular challenge as we prepare for the 20-21 school year.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Even with all the efforts you’re making is the bottom line here just that there is going to be a lag, that there will be a cost to this shutdown, to this pandemic for our children.

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: Our goal is always to to minimize any loss of learning and also to be supportive of students and their social emotional health needs.

And so from a health perspective, we know that vaccinations are down and we are supporting families. We’re getting that done. And that can be done through our school buildings in partnership with D.C. health mental health support. We’ve been providing a number of opportunities for students over the summer to talk to an adult, to talk about some of the trauma they may have experienced and will go into the school year with similar approaches. And academically, I think the first thing we want to do and do it well is understand where students are academically, what they have have not mastered for many of our students in grades three, six and nine or start with a a jumpstart to the school year will called Summer Bridge, which will be two weeks before school starts and then school starts, will also administer assessments to understand where students are intervene accordingly. And we’re prepared to have robust interventions throughout the 20-21 year.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  You recently surveyed families in this in the nation’s capital about their school preference, and 52 percent of families showed a preference for in-person learning instead of virtual. So what is going to determine whether you go back to in-person learning or we heard from families is there’s a desire to have choice.

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: And we were creating that opportunity for choice by producing a plan that allows for families to choose what we call hybrid instruction, which is the ability to have in-person instruction for two days a week and to learn at home three days a week. And the reason being is we know we can’t have all of our students in our building and practice appropriate social distance. And so that’s the reason there, that the hybrid approach would be an in-person strategy. And then we were also providing families with the option of solely virtual for those families that did not want to pursue a hybrid approach with in-person instruction.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  But the bottom line is, is that for the foreseeable future, it will all be virtual.

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: Well, we’re still working up to a ramp to in-person instruction. The first term ends on November six. The expectation is that we have a plan and we’re prepared to go into a hybrid option beginning November 9th, the following week. I anticipate that we’ll have some unique opportunities between now and November, which will have the ability to do some in-person learning and maybe some in-person tutorials or child care for students. And so that is something that will continue to the plan for work through between now and November.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  And when that happens, what would be the plan for what to do if a child is covid positive and how will you know?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So, you know, obviously we would want to continue to have families and our staff members do regular checks for symptoms and to ensure that regularly screening themselves, which is a part of our practice now for our employees. It’s interesting, the 40 percent of D.C. government employees are working in person right now, approximately. So we’ve learned a lot about how to handle that. As adults, we would do something similar as relates to students to ensure that we’re continuing to monitor symptoms. We are encouraging individuals to get tested when they exhibit symptoms and they continue to monitor very close contacts of those individuals. Should there be a positive, you know, study of a student or staff member that’s contracted covid-19. So if there’s a positive test, we know what to do and how to respond and we’ll communicate with individuals accordingly.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  But at this point, it’s a matter of asking people to take their temperatures, right. You’re not actually administering covid tests.

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: So we have a robust number of options where individuals in the District of Columbia can take a test for free. It’s walk up testing available throughout the city. However, we in some cases do have temperature checks in the city for employees. That’s currently not a part of our current plans for students or staff. However, we do ask people to do a daily symptom checker and screener to ensure that they are not experiencing any symptoms.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So what is the plan for when we hopefully get to a vaccine? Do you know? And is the district asking for educators who are on those front lines and classrooms? Should they go back to in-person teaching? Will they be first in line, second in line for a vaccine?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: You know, I don’t I don’t know where we will land with the vaccine, so I don’t know the capacity that we’ll have, obviously we’re all wanting to resume life as we knew it before marching and covid has impacted our community. So if a vaccine allows us to do that, we want to ensure that we do that safely and as quickly as possible. However, I think the the ability to to take a vaccine is often going to rely on, you know, the person who’s willing to do so. And then, you know, how much we have available. Obviously, we will want to prioritize essential workers. And we want to ensure that those individuals that are providing critical services have access to it, and I see public education as a critical service to our communities.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Absolutely. And lastly, particularly for low income families, we know low income parents have been hit particularly hard, but for the children themselves, what are you doing to help some of those children who rely on being able to go into schools to even just get a meal on a daily basis?

CHANCELLOR FEREBEE: We have provided meals for families throughout the spring and this summer we provided close to a million meals, about close to 900000 meals. And we’ve done that with a commitment to providing students with actually two meals so they get a lunch and then they also get a non-perishable breakfast for the following day. And then at several of our sites, we have what we call family grocery meals, where families can get meals and take home for the entire family for a period of time. And so I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to provide those meals. And it’s something, whether we’re in person or we’re solely virtual, that we’ll continue to provide that service to our communities.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Absolutely a critical service, Mr. Chancellor. Thank you so much.

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