DC parents voice frustration about school safety protocols, lack of flexibility

D.C. parents, students, educators and council members on Tuesday expressed frustration with the city’s lack of flexible learning plans and inconsistent coronavirus safety protocols weeks into the new school year.

The D.C. Council met Tuesday as a Committee of the Whole to get an idea of how the first few weeks of in-person learning are going during the third school year that the pandemic has impacted.

The answer from several parents: badly.

The lack of COVID testing, unclear quarantine protocols and communication, and the lack of a virtual option were consistent themes among the few dozen who testified Tuesday as part of the council’s public roundtable.

But city officials maintained they are working to ensure schools remain safe, with Chancellor Lewis Ferebee saying, “The joy from our students is unmistakable” as they return to classrooms.

From Aug. 29 to last Wednesday, 295 COVID cases have been reported in schools, according to the latest District data.

That number is likely to spike soon, parent Tyesha Andrews said, because “winter is coming, which means flu season and COVID are about to flourish.”

To further help curb spread, Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday removed the testing option for those who interact with students, leaving vaccination as their only choice.

Andrews was also critical of the city’s current virtual learning policy, which allows an online alternative for kids with a doctor’s note. Many parents have scrambled to work with students who are in quarantine at home and cannot attend classes remotely.

“It is foolish, impractical, unreasonable and insensitive to send children who cannot be vaccinated back to school in person mandatorily,” said Andrews, who has children attending Plummer Elementary and Jefferson Middle Academy.

Another frustrated parent who testified, Alexandra Simbana, said she is still recovering from a bout with COVID that put her in the hospital for nine days. She is now immunocompromised, she said, and because “quarantine and isolation protocols seem to have been designed by someone who’s never been in a fourth grade classroom,” her daughter is now learning from home.

At-large Council member Christina Henderson said DC Health is planning to update its quarantine guidance.

“This would be easier if the mayor had not prohibited our schools from establishing a virtual option,” said Simbana, who also called for expanded COVID testing, more transparency and making outdoor lunches available to all students.

Ferebee and Bowser said Monday that they encourage outdoor lunches. Testing at schools is now opt-out rather than opt-in, with the city’s health department recommending it test 10% of asymptomatic students per week.

Nura Green Lane, who identified herself as a “pissed-off parent” from Ward 7, added that D.C. Public Schools need to provide kids with the hardware and support necessary for virtual learning.

In addition, she called for extending the use of school nurses to COVID testing and vaccinations. She also called for changes to school policy regarding unexplained absences.

“As it stands, five unexplained absences trigger a letter. Ten days or more trigger an alert to child protective services for educational neglect. My son was sent home already, and he just returned on Monday for quarantine.”

Lane also pointed out that the hearing she was testifying at was not being done in-person.

“The irony is we are conducting this hearing virtually, but our children are in person learning who mostly are unvaccinated,” she said.

Educators also weighed in during the roundtable.

Jamie Miles, the chief of Schools for AppleTree Public Charter Schools, said it has already been her most challenging year. Health precautions, she said, have left little time to address learning opportunities.

And, she said, circumstances have forced teachers to cover for those who are not in the classroom.

“Our teachers are exhausted, and we are just one month into the school year,” said Miles, adding that a business-as-usual mindset is not working.

The president of D.C.’s State Board of Education, Zachary Parker, echoed that sentiment.

“This year is different,” he said, “and we cannot pretend that adding filters and requiring masks will keep the pandemic out of schools. In fact, the outbreaks and quarantines have already started in schools across the city. This is not the time for staying the course.”

To that point, he said D.C.’s re-opening strategy needs to be changed, and he called for providing a virtual learning option, as well as changes to attendance rules until a vaccine is available to younger kids.

“The district’s current policies are simply not adequate to encompass all the variables faced by our families,” he said. “A single policy with incredibly limited exceptions is not up to the task of serving families during the current stage of the pandemic.”

The view from D.C.’s deputy mayor for education, Paul Kihn, was more upbeat.

“We do believe our children are safe in our schools,” he said, detailing the layered mitigation strategies that have been taken, such as a youth vaccination program, a $24 million investment in HVAC systems at all D.C. Public Schools buildings and a vaccine mandate for all adults in schools and child care facilities.

Kihn also assured everyone that the District is committed to “an even more robust and transparent” system for sharing COVID data.

And Kihn touched on what a year without in-person learning has done to D.C.’s kids.

“An analysis of learning loss across the city during the first nine months of the pandemic showed concerning declines in academic achievement in math and reading,” he said.

Ferebee, the system’s chancellor, struck a positive tone, too.

He assured parents that biweekly “walkthroughs” are now being conducted at each school to monitor the supply of personal protective equipment as well as compliance with health and safety protocols.

And while he acknowledged that this new school year feels “very different” to families, he said it’s been quite different for educators as well, with new routines and protocols to learn.

“We are constantly monitoring the effectiveness of our protocols at the system level and have shown that we can be responsive and quickly pivot when needed,” Ferebee said.

Learning materials, he said, are currently being posted on the District’s web-based learning management system, Canvas, so quarantining students can access them.

But is it ready to roll out virtual learning again if necessary? That’s what at-large D.C. Council member Robert White asked Ferebee. It’s a question that could loom even larger in the months ahead.

Ferebee said that the resources are available if virtual learning is needed.

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.

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to WTOP.com when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer.

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