As DC education board calls for flexibility, schools chancellor says city committed to in-person learning

Five days before the start of school in D.C., the District’s State Board of Education is urging Mayor Muriel Bowser to adjust the city’s fall plans, calling for increased testing, a vaccine mandate for all students 16 and older and the possibility for schools to add a hybrid or fully virtual option.

In a letter sent to Bowser’s office Wednesday afternoon, the board officials said the recommendations “will greatly decrease the level of community stress and mitigate infection rates within our schools.” But at a D.C. teacher training event, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee told WTOP the city is planning to move forward with its in-person learning plan, even as some local school systems have announced temporary virtual plans for students not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

The board’s concerns, which it said follow conversations with D.C. students, families and educators, come as coronavirus cases rise in the D.C. region, largely due to the delta variant. Ferebee and Bowser detailed back-to-school plans last week, describing the need to practice social distancing, wear masks and quarantine if exposed, while discouraging travel outside the region during the school year.

But many parents remain fearful about outbreaks in schools, the board said, hoping the city has a contingency plan in the event of such spread. City officials had previously said there wasn’t a metric that would prompt a switch to virtual learning.

WTOP has contacted Bowser’s office for comment on the board’s letter.

“Some families have told us that they lost family members to COVID,” said Jessica Sutter, Ward 6 representative on the State Board of Education. “And it’s too hard to imagine sending an unvaccinated child into school in the middle of a surge. I think the question we’re facing is, if we don’t offer a virtual option for those families, will they remove their children from public school altogether?”

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Calls for virtual learning

In the letter, the board urges Bowser to allow “all local education agencies to add a hybrid or fully virtual option for all families who request it” and make sure there are alternative plans in place if a closure is warranted.

Ferebee had previously said there isn’t a permanent plan to offer virtual learning for those who don’t have a doctor’s note approving them to be out of class. And some parents have expressed frustration with the wording on the form, which calls for doctors to indicate a student has a condition that requires them to learn remotely.

But on Wednesday, Ferebee said the city isn’t planning to make virtual options more widespread.

“The most important thing [families] can do for themselves and their entire household is to get vaccinated,” Ferebee said, adding that there could be considerations for virtual learning for students under 12 years old, but the expectation is that they would be in school.

Meanwhile, Zachary Parker, the board’s president, told WTOP that there is more the school system can be offering when it comes to virtual learning.

In the short term, Parker said, city officials can do things such as transfer waiver forms so parents can sign them electronically — something several council members have called for.

“Making sure that there are flexibilities in our attendance policies, as well as the ability for parents to sign up for home schooling,” Parker said. “If those are options that families need to take, or if there are decisions that would keep a child from school, that parents would not be punished during the public health emergency.

“We want all local education agencies [D.C. public and public charter schools] to be planning and thinking about what a virtual option or a hybrid option may look like for families, understanding that this may not be possible in the next five days,” Parker said.

The board, Sutter and Parker said, is also calling for the city to expand its definition of the health-need exemption to in-person learning to include household member concerns. Parker said he has heard the demand for the exemption firsthand.

“One parent reached out to me: One child has health issues, immunodeficiency issues, and another child is completely healthy,” Parker said. “One child received a waiver, another child did not. That parent was asking, ‘What can I do for this one child who has not received a waiver, but is being asked to go into school buildings, where potentially COVID is going to run rampant?'”

Request to mandate vaccination

During the city’s back-to-school plan announcement, officials expressed the desire to randomly test 10% of students every week. However, D.C. Council members have expressed frustration with the plan, noting that schools can only test unvaccinated students who have enrolled themselves in the testing program.

So, the board is asking Bowser to consider extending testing to include all students and staff, including those who have been vaccinated because they could potentially carry the virus as well. The board said it believes expanding testing will improve contact tracing abilities and increase community confidence in school safety. Increased testing can be accommodated using federal funding, Parker said.

The city, Parker said, should also set clear guidelines around how testing information will be shared with parents, students and educators, and work to establish safety guidelines for how students interact at school, including in sports, academic and extracurricular settings.

Meanwhile, the board is also recommending that all students 16 and older be required to get vaccinated, pointing to Bowser’s request for D.C. government employees, which include schoolteachers and staff, to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. There isn’t currently a requirement for students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, several D.C. Council members say the testing option for District employees, including anyone who has regular contact with children in a school setting, should be eliminated.

On the point of vaccinations, Ferebee said they’re the best way to keep everyone safe in schools. Health officials maintain the best way to keep kids safe is to surround them with fully vaccinated adults.

“We need everybody to get vaccinated. T that allows us to mitigate the transmission of COVID in our community, which allows us to operate schools successfully,” Ferebee said.

As of Wednesday night, 66.2% of D.C. residents are partially or fully vaccinated, according to D.C. Health data. Among D.C. residents 12 and older, that figure is 76.7%.

Other requests

Moving forward, the board is also urging Bowser to consider:

  • Adjusting the attendance policies to provide extra flexibility for excused absences;
  • Directing the State Superintendent of Education to suspend attendance referrals to the Child and Family Services Agency for COVID-19 related absences;
  • Devoting emergency funding and services to improving mental health.

“The State Board has been constantly engaging with the administration and the council on the reopening of schools,” Parker said. “Today’s letter is just yet another data point and way of engagement that the State Board has been working on.”

Monday is the first day of school in D.C.

The board’s letter, and the latest back-to-school information, is available online.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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