With test results submitted, thousands of DC students return to class as COVID-19 surges

Students gathered outside Excel Academy Public School in Southeast Thursday morning to checked in with administrators and get their negative test result cleared.
Students gathered outside Excel Academy Public School in Southeast Thursday morning to check in with administrators and get their negative test results cleared. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli)

Students in D.C. Public Schools returned from winter break Thursday, but before they could re-enter classrooms, they needed to prove that they’d tested negative for the coronavirus.

They had the option of uploading their test results online, presenting a photo of their negative test or taking a test at school before being allowed in class.

“It’s been smoother than I expected,” said Vanessa Willingham, a mother at Excel Academy Public School in Southeast. “They did a pretty good job. I thought it would be chaos, but it’s going pretty good.”

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a test-to-return policy would be adopted before the second half of the school year. After providing staff and students with at-home test kits, 39,139 students submitted their test results, and 9,245 staff submitted their results, according to city data.

Speaking at a Thursday news conference, Bowser said there are still about 10,000 students who haven’t reported results. She said some students were given the opportunity to take tests at schools on Thursday and others brought proof of their results with them, so the number could still climb.

‘Unsettled tension’

The testing effort came as the city continues to report elevated coronavirus caseloads, with some parents and teachers urging leadership to consider a temporary transition to virtual learning, similar to what nearby Prince George’s County in Maryland put in place before the holidays.

“There seems to be an unsettled tension between having schools opened at all costs, and the cost being the overall safety of all the school members and all the school personnel,” said Richard Jackson, president of the Council of School Officers, a union that represents school administrators.

He said a growing pile of responsibilities for enforcing COVID-19 protocols is falling on the shoulders of school leadership.

“Every day, my members are having to do a calculus around how safe can schools be opened given the tools they have to work with,” he told WTOP.

Speaking Thursday, Bowser stressed that the administration’s priority is keeping students in school, which health officials say is essential and can be done safely. Only one school, Jefferson Middle School, started the second half of the school year with virtual learning.

Bowser said some classes within other schools also held classes virtually Thursday. Bowser and Ferebee have said transitions to virtual learning will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, using guidance from DC Health and depending on staff availability.

City lawmakers, meanwhile, have urged Bowser and Ferebee to publicly provide a metric used to determine when classes are held virtually.

Back at Excel Academy Public School, as students gathered outside the building Thursday morning, they checked in with administrators and were given a green ticket proving they had been cleared.

‘Smooth transition’

“They give you the pass to go into class and give you some hand sanitizer,” said mother Nerissa Ford. “It was a smooth transition. No lines and no confusion.”

Ford said she was not bothered at all by Thursday’s testing mandate.

“We have to do what we have to do right now during this pandemic in order for our children to continue to get their education,” Ford said.

School officials shifted their stance on the testing requirement ahead of Thursday morning. Initially, the requirement would have allowed students who couldn’t upload their results to simply show up with a handwritten note from a parent or guardian stating that they had tested negative. Parents and teachers previously said they experienced issues with the online system this week.

That idea was thrown out after the school system received criticism from parents and teachers who pointed to the fact that a note provided no proof that a test had been taken.

While some parents welcomed the return to the classroom, the sharp rise in COVID cases in the District and around the country had others on edge.

Shatrica Winchester, another mother at Excel Academy, said she did not feel comfortable with the fact that in-person classes were being held.

“The virus is spreading rapidly through the teachers and kids,” Winchester said. “The kids don’t keep the mask on and it’s just not safe. I would rather have them be virtual.”

D.C. Council members have also called for more transparency to keep schools safe. Earlier this week, At-Large Council Member Robert White introduced legislation that would require the school system to report cases to families within 24 hours and have a COVID coordinator and permanent substitute teacher in every school by Feb. 1.

Bowser allotted funding for those positions in October, and in a letter to Ward 4 Council Member Janeese Lewis George’s office, Ferebee said the system is aiming to begin filling those positions later this month.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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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