by Mark Moran
“We have the best [school] reopening plan in the country, that’s not an exaggeration,” declared DC Mayor Muriel Bowser during a January 11th virtual meeting hosted by the Ward 3 Democrats and teachers and parents from the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network.
Bowser answered questions from attendees about a range of issues, including the city’s plan to return some teachers and students to DC Public Schools buildings when the third term begins on February 1st. An earlier plan to return to in-school learning in November was scrapped in the face of continuing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, and protests from teachers, school principals and parents over the lack of transparency in the plan and the failure to consult with stakeholders in the community.
In stressing that schools were being given flexibility to design their own return, Bowser appeared to be responding to previous criticisms about the November plan. “We trust that principals and teachers know best how to address each schools’ needs,” she said
Bowser also reiterated her strong support for a return to in-school learning, saying there was an enormous “learning loss” for some of the most vulnerable students associated with remote learning.
“We know that a year away from school and from teachers is hurting our kids and hurting them for years to come,” she said.
In educational meetings in the fall, teachers also expressed concern about learning loss among their students and an eagerness to return to school, but they and their union and other advocates have been skeptical of the DCPS plans for a safe return to physical classrooms.
In early January, Bowser set the week of January 25th as the target date for beginning teacher and school staff vaccinations. Joe Weedon, a spokesman for the Washington Teachers’ Union, told Forest Hills Connection on Tuesday, January 26th that teachers would begin to receive their first doses on that day.
Kelly Crabtree, a teacher at Murch Elementary, confirmed on the 26th that she was scheduled to receive her first vaccination that night, with a second shot the week of February 15th. “Today will start the first wave of teachers getting vaccinated,” she said.
However, “educators receiving the vaccine this week will not be fully immune until late February or early March, approximately 10 days after they receive their second dose,” said WTU’s Weedon in an email.
“Unfortunately, we do not have any data on the number of teachers returning to in-person environments, the number of vaccines available, or the number of appointments scheduled at this time,” Weedon said. “Last week the Chancellor [Lewis Ferebee] alluded to some data points in his council testimony, stating that he expects enough vaccines for 75% of the workforce, but expects at least 60% to receive their first dose this week. We’re unsure where those data points came from – there has been no teacher survey on this that we are aware.”
Other missing data include the number of students returning to classrooms, information that DCPS promised to provide the union in the December agreement that paved the way toward reopening. The teachers’ union and DCPS representatives met with a mediator Thursday. The Washington Post reports both groups expect a ruling before the reopening.
The CDC reported this week that with appropriate social distancing and other protocols, viral
spread in schools appears to be low. Precautions at DCPS schools include upgrades to heating and air conditioning systems.
“We have made all of the changes we need to make to our HVAC systems in our buildings,” Bowser said at the January 11th meeting. “We have a robust safety protocol including three health aides in addition to school nurses, a safety protocol for entering the building, asymptomatic testing and at-home tests for teachers and staff.”
Nevertheless, the mayor seemed to acknowledge that there were still obstacles to be overcome. “A lot of our ability to offer in-person learning has to do with physical distancing – the number of kids we can actually have in the building.”
Also of special concern among educators at the meeting was whether DCPS budgets would account for the expected increase in enrollment when the pandemic subsides, particularly at schools that are already at capacity. But Bowser declined to comment on the FY22 budget. “I’m not making any comments on the budget we are working on.”
She said the federal government owed the city $100 million for shortfalls in the Emergency Planning and Security Fund because of cost overruns for the Trump inauguration in 2017 and police and security costs associated with the many recent demonstrations in the city.
Bowser said all of her previous six budgets included increases for public education. This year, though, she said the city will be looking for evidence-based ways to cost-effectively address learning, especially for those children who have experienced the greatest “learning loss” due to remote learning. She asked all educators to be thinking about how best to help those students, as well as about what can be learned from students who have thrived with remote learning.
“It won’t be good enough to say we put more money into it,” she said.