by Mark Moran
Approximately 3,100 educators – teachers and staff – were given the first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the first week of February, according to District of Columbia Public Schools officials who spoke to educators and parents at a February 8th virtual meeting of the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network.
The following day, the Washington Teachers Union and American Federation of Teachers sent a letter to Mayor Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Ferebee expressing appreciation for the vaccination efforts, but also reiterating concerns about pandemic safety in light of the recent death of Helenmaire’ White, a WTU member and teacher at Ballou STAY.
“…[T]he number of cases in our schools over the past few weeks gives us great concern that the District is putting the health of our city’s educators and students at risk,” wrote AFT President Randi Weingarten and WTU President Elizabeth A. Davis.
They cited nearly 50 cases of exposure in school settings since mid-November, when the District opened CARE classrooms, in which children learn remotely under supervision. In addition, “during the first days of our city’s return to in-person learning, five classrooms were forced to convert to 100% distance learning due to COVID exposures,” they wrote.
(Parents and other interested parties can access information about Covid cases at individual schools on the DCPS website.)
During the February 8 meeting with teachers, principals and parents of W3EdNet, DCPS co-deputy chancellors Melissa Kim and Amy Maisterra fielded questions about school re-openings and vaccination progress, among other matters.
The first DCPS teachers were vaccinated on January 26th, and began receiving their second doses on February 15th. Since it would be March before the recipients would be considered immunized, a questioner wondered why schools were being reopened before then.
Maisterra said vaccinations were one part of a multi-layered strategy that also involved social distancing, air quality monitoring, personal protective equipment and testing protocols.
“Vaccination adds another layer,” Maisterra said, and even before the vaccine became available she said DCPS felt “very confident” that schools were ready and safe for reopening.
Several parents in attendance expressed frustration about wanting to have their student return to in-person learning but being unable to.
“There are a lot of variables [we have to juggle] including health conditions and the number of kids in a classroom, the age of kids returning, and having enough staffing to be able to support virtual learning [while supporting] in person learning,” Kim said.
“We aren’t able to use all of our teachers because some can’t [return],” she said. DCPS has a “balancing act” with all of these variables “while taking care of kids who have to be virtual.”
Ruth Wattenberg, the immediate past president of the State Board of Education, queried Kim and Maisterra about possibilities for outdoor classes. “If we want to get kids back to school, I really think this would be a great way to do it,” Wattenberg said.
Kim said if school communities have the desire and the necessary funds for tents and other paraphernalia. they are encouraged to set up classrooms outdoors. “There is an option for outdoor learning,” she said. “We at DCPS did not stop outdoor learning. We were encouraging it. I have no doubt that as the weather gets nicer [some schools will adopt outdoor learning].”
But she added that schools also need contingency planning for inclement weather and issues of community safety that might require a rapid return indoors. “We are balancing outdoor spaces we can use and the ability to quickly move indoors and still be safe.”
Wattenberg later told Forest Hills Connection that telling schools they are free to use their existing budgets to support outdoor learning “doesn’t cut it.” She said school budgets and staff time are already seriously stressed.
“A commitment to using the outdoors for classrooms means tents. But it also may mean heaters, space, installation of tents, plans for restroom use, outdoor clothing,” she said.
She recommended that DCPS put in place the infrastructure that would allow schools to choose outdoor education in term 4. “If we think using the outdoors to educate students is an important tool for expanding in-person education, the city could close and block off streets adjacent to the schools, creating space for tented classrooms,” Wattenberg said.
“Organizations exist that can support schools in using the outdoors, but the school district needs to contract with them. There appears to be a good deal of parent support for learning outdoors. But the schools can’t do it on their own.”