DC Council emergency bill calls for expanded virtual learning

The D.C. Council will introduce emergency legislation Tuesday that, if approved, would expand virtual learning and the definition of excused absences.

In a draft of the legislation that Chairman Phil Mendelson shared Thursday, virtual learning would be available to D.C. public or charter school students if they have a high-risk medical condition or live with someone who has a high-risk condition.

Under the current policy, only students whose doctors attest that they have a condition requiring them to learn remotely are eligible to do so.

The proposed legislation would also broaden the excused absence policy, something council members have called for after learning of parents who were referred to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency because they didn’t send their kids to school, citing coronavirus-related safety concerns.

A third component would implement more specific reporting requirements related to cases at schools.

The proposal doesn’t include a student vaccine requirement, something Mendelson said is under consideration. City officials have also said they are exploring such a requirement.

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh told WTOP that some council members recommended a public hearing about the student vaccination requirement before a bill is drafted.

While the council is scheduled to vote on the emergency legislation at its Oct. 5 meeting, its first back from summer recess, Mendelson is urging Mayor Muriel Bowser, as well as the city’s deputy mayor for education, to take action.

“We’re trying to be responsive to our parents, our educators, who had outlined their fears, their concerns,” Ward 6 council member Charles Allen said. “I think we’ve put something together that addresses many of those. And you would certainly welcome to see the school system take those steps proactively.”

Deputy Major for Education Paul Kihn said in a statement to WTOP that the Mayor’s office has been encouraged by “strong attendance and enrollment” at the city’s schools for in-person learning.

“Through our layered health and safety approach, we continue to believe in-person learning is safe for our students, staff, and families,” Kihn said. “We know that In-person learning is essential to not only prevent widening of opportunity gaps in our city, but to ensure our students have access to all the supports and resources they need to thrive.”

Emergency legislation requires broad council support, something Mendelson said he doesn’t anticipate will be an issue. Cheh said she expects the bill to receive the nine required votes.

Bowser can veto emergency legislation, but the council can override it.

The council’s call for action comes in the midst of a chaotic start to the school year. In hours-long hearings, parents and educators have detailed frustrations with communication surrounding coronavirus cases and close contacts, a failure to meet testing goals and the lack of a virtual option for students in quarantine.

The bill represents the final call for Bowser’s administration to take action to improve conditions in city schools before the council returns.

“If we’re provoking the mayor to do something that we think should be done, well, that’s perfect,” Cheh said. “It won’t stop us from doing what we’re doing necessarily, but we’ve seen that before.”

The council is slated to discuss the bill, titled “Protecting our Children Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2021,” next week. Six council members, and Mendelson, support the measure.

In letters shared on Twitter, Mendelson called on Paul Kihn, the deputy mayor for education, and Dr. Christina Grant, the acting state superintendent of education, to act now.

In the letter to Kihn, Mendelson calls for expansion of the virtual learning requirement, citing the options nearby Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland have provided students.

Mendelson said the virtual policy as-is is “difficult to defend,” because it calls for a doctor saying the option is required rather than recommended and doesn’t consider the health of those living with students.

In a similar letter to Grant, Mendelson said currently only 180 students qualify for virtual learning in D.C.

WTOP has contacted Grant and DC Public Schools for comment. On Thursday night, Mendelson said he hasn’t yet received a response.

Meanwhile, Cheh said, the council should explore other aspects of school safety, such as further expanding virtual options, requiring increased testing of students, faculty and staff, and establishing outdoor lunch and learning requirements, wherever possible.

Scott Goldstein, with DC organization EmpowerEd that works to create a more equitable DC education system, echoed Cheh’s concerns. He said in a series of tweets that the proposed policy doesn’t expand testing, create a test-to-stay program or require outdoor learning.

However, Cheh said, the current legislation is intentionally narrow in focus.

“I want people to appreciate that he’s trying to put this together in a way that will capture a supermajority of votes,” Cheh said of Mendelson’s proposal.

The complete bill is available online.

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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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