Chaotic last week of school in DC ends with hundreds of new COVID-19 cases

D.C. parent Dana Grosser-Clarkson wasn’t planning to travel for the holidays this winter because of a spike in coronavirus cases, but she did organize a birthday party for her 6-year-old son last weekend.

All of the details were planned out — it was to be an outdoor event, and as a precaution, everyone attending would be masked. She felt good about the layers of protection that would be in place.

But last Friday, her son’s entire class was sent home to quarantine because a classmate tested positive for the coronavirus. After weighing the pros and cons, Grosser-Clarkson decided to cancel the party. It wouldn’t be responsible to host the event when everyone was supposed to be in quarantine, she thought.

With the holidays approaching, a rise in coronavirus cases has parents concerned. The spike in community spread made its way into city schools, which in separate letters Wednesday night reported more than 800 new cases. Days before winter break, which started Thursday, thousands of students and staff members are in quarantine, according to city data.

“I’m nervous to see how the rest of the numbers unfold over the next couple of weeks,” Grosser-Clarkson said. “If we’re still on the upswing of this exponential curve here, we’re in trouble. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like when we start [going] back to school.”

According to the latest D.C. data released Tuesday, 1,713 staff members and 8,986 students were in quarantine. Some schools, beginning with J.O. Wilson and Whittier Elementary, transitioned classrooms to virtual learning as early as last week. Many others followed suit.

At a news conference on Monday, D.C. schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said guidance from health officials, continuity of instruction and understanding whether operations will be affected were the factors used to decide which schools transitioned to virtual learning.

Epernay Kyles, a city teacher affiliated with the Washington Teachers’ Union, said her school was told Monday that it would have to apply to be considered for short-term virtual learning. When in-person learning is unable to proceed, she said, faculty and staff are left to determine how best to move forward.

Kyles recently learned that someone she interacted with tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting her to take multiple rapid at-home tests to ensure she can be safe around her mom, who is a cancer survivor.

“The mayor and chancellor really put teachers and put students in an unsafe position, where many teachers personally that I know contracted the virus through their interactions at school,” Kyles said, “and now have to quarantine and cannot see their families for the holidays.”

The earlier delta surge left an already depleted substitute teacher pool exhausted, Kyles said, and if teachers feel sick, they’re often told to stay home while unsure who would be covering their classes.

WTOP contacted the school system for comment on Wednesday’s increase in cases, but Ferebee wrote in a letter to the school community Wednesday that “to expedite notifications of positive reported cases at schools, close contact notifications will be sent to all students and staff in the classroom of a positive reported case if more detailed contact tracing cannot be completed expediently.”

Health officials maintain that in-person learning is essential and can be done safely, but Kyles said “these three days [before break] could have easily been virtual.”

Noting case numbers may remain high, city officials this week outlined a plan for the return to classrooms in January. Schools will be closed Jan. 3 and 4, so parents can pick up rapid antigen tests that will be available to staff and families for free. Students are strongly encouraged but not required to complete the test before returning to school Jan. 5.

The school system will continue its asymptomatic testing program and work to communicate case information in a timely manner.

“There may be some lag in terms of anecdotal experience that people have and what actually gets reported and the time at which it gets reported centrally,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a news conference Wednesday. “That would be my guess if there is any discrepancy. We’re looking into school every minute of every day.”

But in the short term, the spike in cases resulted in a chaotic end to the first half of the school year. For Grosser-Clarkson, that meant keeping her kids home Tuesday because “at least one of the teachers was out, and there’s no subs. There’s a massive shortage. So what ends up happening is they end up grouping kids, combining classes, and it’s not good COVID protocol.”

It also meant no birthday party for her 6-year-old son.

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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