DC Council draft bill could expand virtual learning, require vaccination for students

Weeks into the school year, D.C. Council members are drafting emergency legislation that could make virtual learning more accessible and require COVID-19 vaccinations for students who are eligible to receive them.

The council is scheduled to return from its recess for its first legislative meeting Tuesday, Oct. 5.

Emergency legislation requires nine votes to pass and cannot have a cost associated with it. Mayor Muriel Bowser can block emergency legislation, but the council has the authority to overrule her objection.

Chairman Phil Mendelson told WTOP on Wednesday that the legislation is still being drafted.

WTOP has contacted Bowser for comment, but hasn’t heard back from her office at the time of publication.

The draft policy comes about a month into a school year Mendelson said has been plagued by “avoidable glitches.” Council members, parents and teachers have expressed frustration over the first few weeks of school, citing unclear quarantine guidelines, failure to reach a stated testing goal, the lack of a virtual option for students and delays in school repairs.

“The policy that we want is we want kids to get the best education, and we know the best education is in person,” Mendelson said. “We also know from the CDC that in-person schools is not dangerous. However, there are a lot of parents who are understandably afraid for the safety of their kids. So it’s trying to find that right balance.”

Under current D.C. Public Schools guidelines, students whose doctors attest that a medical condition requires them to participate in virtual learning are able to learn remotely. Only a few hundred students qualify under those restrictions, Mendelson said.

The policy in the works, Mendelson said, would not make a virtual option available to anyone who wants it, but is “a relaxing, so that some of the circumstances that we’ve heard complaints about that are really hard to defend are addressed.”

The council is also considering how it could require vaccination for all students 12 and over. Last week, Bowser announced a vaccine requirement for all teachers, school staff, child care workers and student-athletes. She also removed the testing option for adults who interact with kids.

More broadly, Mendelson said, a portion of the bill could explore ways to make the school system’s attendance policy less consequential for parents who have opted not to send their kids into school. Some parents who have kept kids home because of safety concerns said their cases have been referred to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency.

“In my view, parents who are afraid for the safety of their kids should not then have to deal with punitive child welfare investigations over keeping their kids home from school,” Mendelson said. “There’s a better balance, and it’s a matter of finding that better balance. We want kids to be educated, and ideally, we want kids to be in school. But there are a lot of parents who understandably fear for the safety of their child.”

City officials have recently heard hours of testimony from concerned teachers and parents. During a seven-hour hearing last week, parents took issue with the city’s lack of communication and lack of flexibility regarding outdoor lunches, as well as the District’s inability to reach its goal of testing 10% of asymptomatic students every week.

At that hearing, Paul Kihn, the city’s deputy mayor for education, said he believes kids are safe in city schools.

And on Tuesday night, a nine-hour hearing revealed problems with HVAC systems that are working improperly or not at all.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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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