On Aug. 30, the first day of school in D.C., Ward 6 mom Danica Petroshius sent her 11-year-old son to begin sixth grade at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan with a KN95 mask and a surgical mask to be used over it.
He also had sanitizer in his backpack and brought his lunch, instructed to only pull it down while eating.
After the first week of classes, Petroshius said, she learned lunch was held indoors and the asymptomatic testing program brought six to seven students in an indoor room at one time.
On Labor Day, her son was fatigued, and he woke up the next day with a 100.3-degree fever. Rapid and PCR tests confirmed a positive coronavirus diagnosis.
Ward 7 parent Shelley Brown, whose children attend the same school, said she experienced the same frustration. A call from the school revealed her sixth grade daughter was a close contact, and though she wasn’t experiencing symptoms, she also tested positive, sending Brown and the rest of her family into quarantine.
What followed, Petroshius and Brown told WTOP, was a lack of clarity surrounding quarantine rules, minimal communication from school officials and frustration with the current school plans to combat the virus. The pair sent a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, calling for improved testing and communication, clear quarantine guidance and a virtual option for those who need it.
Several city council members have expressed similar concerns on a weekly call with city administrators.
“We have had this whole pandemic without even a scare,” Brown said. “And seven days into the school year, my daughter is positive. I co-authored this with Danica to keep this from happening to another family.”
In an emailed statement, a D.C. Public Schools spokesman said the city routinely reviews its health and safety measures. As of Sept. 11, according to city data, 128 students have tested positive and 1,109 students are currently in quarantine.
Still, health officials maintain in-person schooling is essential to prevent learning loss and can be done safely if the proper precautions are taken.
“Our approach is based on preventing the spread of COVID-19 with universal masking, physical distancing, enhanced air filtration and cleaning, and a robust campaign for our community to get vaccinated,” the school system said. “We are screening for COVID-19 symptoms with daily health assessments for students and staff, and we will have regular asymptomatic testing for students. We are also keeping our families informed if there is a COVID-19 case within their school and within their class and publicly sharing every notice on our DCPS Reopen Strong website.”
In the 13-page letter, which the parents say the deputy mayor told them he received and is reviewing, Petroshius and Brown say mask wearing and distancing are inconsistent. They also said notification times of exposure range from one to four days.
Brown said after her daughter’s test came back positive, it took several attempts before the school responded. Petroshius took the initiative to reach out to her son’s whole class, because the school system was only in touch with close contacts, she said.
“I’m one person trying to figure this out,” Petroshius said. “I did my own forensic analysis of how this all happened.”
Meanwhile, Brown said, when she asked the school system about her 13-year-old daughter, who wasn’t exposed at school but lived with a positive, unvaccinated person, she was told it was a parental choice whether she needed to quarantine.
“Both of my kids hated virtual learning,” Brown said. “They really wanted to go back in the building, but now, I’m just so scared now.”
The school system said it recognizes “that this is a difficult time for many of our families and the real anxiety associated with the pandemic.”
In a separate section of the letter, the pair expresses frustration with the school’s indoor lunch plans. While there’s no way to be certain, both suspect their children’s exposure to the virus likely occurred during lunch periods.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance recommends physical distancing while eating together in school. Both parents, though, said kids were eating on top of each other.
“Indoor lunch is a potential superspreader event in every school every day,” Petroshius said. “The city should require and resource outdoor lunch as much as possible.”
Among the parents’ chief complaints is the lack of a virtual plan. While Bowser and Ferebee have been adamant that a virtual learning option would only be available for those with a documented medical need, Brown and Petroshius said their students haven’t been able to participate in classes remotely while isolating.
Petroshius said that while she has received a few emails from some teachers about assignments, “I have failed to provide [my son] with any significant learning opportunity.”
After Brown’s daughter was home for five days, she received work from two teachers.
“It’s not full work, it’s just work,” Brown said. “They don’t have a process yet for if you have to quarantine or if you have to learn remotely.”
In response to the parents’ letter, Kihn’s office said, “This has been both a time of excitement and uncertainty for our community as we welcome our students back for in-person learning. We have and will continue to work together to implement strong, layered health and safety measures that keep our students, staff, and families safe as they learn in school.”
After sharing the letter on social media, Brown and Petroshius said, many other D.C. parents have thanked them for sharing their concerns, citing similar experiences.
The full letter is available online. The parents are hoping it sparks change.
“So many parents wanted somebody to say this and fight for it,” Petroshius said, “and so few of us have the time to do it.”