DC mayor, council clash over proposed COVID-19 school bill

Days after the D.C. Council announced plans to introduce emergency legislation aimed at expanding virtual learning and loosening attendance policies, Mayor Muriel Bowser doubled down on her stance that the city’s current approach aligns with national health guidelines and urged the council to reconsider.

In a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Bowser wrote that “we are collectively working hard to ensure our city does not backslide on educational progress and that opportunity gaps do not widen for our city’s most vulnerable students.”

Bowser said the legislation, which is scheduled to be voted on during Tuesday’s council meeting, would amount to mandating an on-demand virtual option and changes the excused absence policy in a way she said conflicts with science.

Bowser’s letter cited DC Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance.

“I am very troubled and angered by any legislation that aims to disrupt learning or that will tax and burden our schools,” Bowser wrote.

Public health officials maintain in-person learning is essential for students, but some parents and educators contend that’s only the case if it’s done safely.

The ongoing clash surrounding safety protocols in D.C. schools comes after council members heard hours of testimony from parents and teachers in the last two weeks that detailed frustrations with testing, building maintenance, absence protocol, quarantine guidelines and an overall lack of flexibility.

In announcing the bill, council members pointed to nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, which intends to use a test-to-stay program, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, which expanded its virtual academy.

The D.C. bill would allow virtual learning for students with underlying conditions or those who live in a household with someone considered to be at high-risk if they were to contract the coronavirus.

In her letter, Bowser said that the broad definition would make thousands more students eligible for remote learning. Speaking at a news briefing Monday, Mendelson, the council chairman, said that it wouldn’t be that many.

The emergency bill, called the “Protecting our Children Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2021,” also calls for stricter data reporting requirements and a loosened absence policy. It was discussed after some parents said they were referred to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency because they didn’t send their kids to school, citing safety concerns.

Emergency legislation requires broad council support, something several council members said last week wouldn’t be a challenge. Bowser can veto it, but the council has the authority to override the veto.

In the letter, dated Sunday, Bowser said the proposal fails to support students, families and educators and that “I strongly believe this proposed emergency legislation will do the opposite and I hope you will reconsider this approach.”

While Bowser said she believes the legislation will negatively impact the city’s schools, others argue the bill doesn’t cover enough ground. A group called DC Families for COVID Safer Schools, which describes itself as “concerned families across every DC Ward, across public and charter schools, with kids in and out of schools,” wants the council to take further action.

In a presentation sent to WTOP, the group describes what it calls inadequate testing, counterproductive and potentially harmful quarantine practices, issues with building infrastructure and a lack of outdoor lunch options.

The group doesn’t mention a vaccine requirement, but several council members on Monday introduced legislation that would require all current and future eligible students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 15.

California announced a similar requirement last week.

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine received emergency use authorization for anyone 12 and older.

As of Monday, 42.4% of kids 12-15 and 41.1% of students 16-17, are fully vaccinated, according to DC Health data.

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said last week she’s planning a public hearing on the vaccine requirement, which isn’t included in the emergency legislation and will be voted on at a future meeting.

“It is imperative that we provide health learning environments for all of our students and school communities,” At-large Council member Christina Henderson said in a statement. “This legislation will take a necessary next step and require all eligible students and childcare employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The vaccine has been tested, it is safe and has proven results, and we have ample supply.”

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.

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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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