DC teachers, lawmakers apprehensive in days before holiday break

Michael Iacovone, a teacher at McKinley Technology High School, in Northeast D.C., has started rethinking his holiday plans with family amid a surge of coronavirus cases across the region.

With an uptick in cases among D.C. teachers and students ahead of next week’s winter break, Iacovone is one of several McKinley staff members who signed on to a letter urging school leadership to start thinking differently about what the next few weeks should look like for the school system.

On Friday, Iacovone said, he had one class with five students present. The others were participating remotely, something Iacovone said teachers don’t want long-term but feel may be the best way to curb the spread of the virus before the holidays.

In the final school days before the winter vacation, teachers, parents and city leaders are apprehensive about the weeks ahead.

Whittier Elementary transitioned to virtual learning earlier this week because of a spike in cases, and Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons said more than half the school’s teachers tested positive for the coronavirus. Iacovone said staffing has been a challenge at McKinley, with the substitute teacher shortage playing a role.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Iacovone said. “I’ve never, ever, in 21 years as a teacher seen morale as low as it is right now. Never, not even close.”

While hospitalizations have not risen dramatically in D.C., Patrick Ashley, with DC Health said, the city posted its highest single-day case count since the pandemic started on Thursday.

Teachers and council members are calling for a plan, but Pogue Lyons told WTOP that there isn’t a metric that would prompt a pivot to virtual learning for a school.

Earlier this week, another school, J.O. Wilson, shifted third and fourth graders and one fifth grade class to virtual learning because of a rise in cases.

In a statement, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said the school system is in communication with health authorities and impacted schools, “and will determine the appropriate next steps for each school based on the operational impacts and health guidance.”

Late Friday afternoon, Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland announced all schools would close and transition to virtual learning until Jan. 18.

After that announcement, D.C. school officials said they had nothing to announce at that time.

Earlier, on a weekly call with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration officials, D.C. Council members were told transitions to virtual learning would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The school system is required to test 20% of asymptomatic students at each school every week through a saliva-based PCR testing system, but parents and lawmakers are pushing for an additional supply of rapid tests.

Ashley said Friday the city has 20,000 rapid tests on hand, with more on the way, but they’re being used in congregant settings such as nursing homes and jails. Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen said he wants rapid testing ready to go the morning kids return from winter break on Jan. 3.

“I would certainly advocate for a very wide-scale rapid test antigen claimants on the morning, not just day one, the morning of day one,” Allen said.

Ashley said DC Health will make an announcement related to testing in schools, but did not say when. Meanwhile, Allen is concerned that, going into the holiday, there won’t be enough staff to ensure proper testing is set up for when kids return.

“If we know we’re going to have a whole bunch of people who either travel or have exposure risk, being able to get that test first thing as people are coming in will help to keep down further exposures,” Allen said.

Mask requirement?

Several council members on Friday pushed the executive to reconsider its mask advisory and reinstating its mask requirement. At a separate event Friday, Bowser said, “Everyone should be wearing a mask indoors according to our health guidance. If something changes and we say that everybody has to wear a mask indoors, effectively that doesn’t change anything in the District.”

“But that is on the table, as well as other interventions or other administrative responses that we need to be prepared for this phase of the pandemic,” Bowser said.

But teachers, which the city is struggling to retain, want further action, circulating a petition Friday urging the mayor and chancellor to shift the whole school system to virtual learning before the holidays.

Winter break is scheduled for Dec. 23 to Dec. 31.

‘The incredible burden’

Dr. Gregory Schrank, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the increase in cases appearing in schools is the result of increased community transmission.

He said the keys to combating the spread of the virus are ensuring “the maximum number of people in those school systems that are eligible to be vaccinated are vaccinated” and following quarantine and exposure guidelines.

“Whether or not there’s transmission occurring within the schools themselves, that may be certainly occurring in some circumstances,” he said. “Just as often is community exposures that some children are having, simply because of the incredible burden of COVID that’s being spread around the community right now.”

Pogue Lyons, head of the teachers’ union, said her greatest fear “and what keeps me up at night is making sure that everyone is safe and healthy.”

The same is true for Iacovone. “[The spread of COVID] is a factor, and it’s really disappointing,” he said.

He had originally planned on seeing parents and in-laws, who are both are in their 70s. He hasn’t seen his family for the holidays in two years because of the pandemic. “[Traveling for the holidays] is something we’ve really looked forward to, but there’s a fair chance that it doesn’t happen because of all this.”

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

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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