Ward 6 Schools Update and Town Hall

For nearly every student in DCPS or a DC Public Charter School, back to school is underway or begins next Monday. And while last spring and early summer showed a lot of reasons to be hopeful in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, we're in a very different place today.

This update is fully dedicated to schools, but I will send out another update soon with more comprehensive information from around the Ward. I'm going to relay the latest information as shared by the Mayor and DCPS Chancellor last week.

But I'm also holding an online Back to School Town Hall this Thursday, August 26, at 8 pm. I've invited several guests to join me, including our Ward 6 State Board of Education member Jessica Sutter, Ward 6 Public Schools Parents Organization leader Suzanne Wells, DC Charter School Alliance Executive Director Shannon Hodge, and perhaps one more guest. We'll share information and perspectives, but I also want to answer your questions. Please send questions my way (you can reply to this email with them if that's easiest) and we'll help make sure to get you answers.

More Details on Re-Opening

Last week DCPS and the Mayor released more information on reopening our schools for in-person learning. I want to acknowledge right away that this continues to be incredibly difficult at every level, including for parents and students to teachers, principals, support staff. We're all being asked to balance near-impossible challenges: minimizing the risk of COVID to entire families while recognizing the critical and central role classroom learning plays for students, many of whom haven't attended in-person in nearly a year and a half. 

That being said, while I want every student to have the option of a full-time in-person seat in their school, the lack of a true virtual learning option (as challenging as that is to operate for both educators and students) is a major concern I've been raising. The idea that parents are basically choosing between sending their unvaccinated child into a classroom every day, including eating meals unmasked in large groups, or just...not doing school because there isn't a viable virtual option isn't best for our kids' unique needs and situations. The lack of virtual instruction is also a concern for likely quarantine situations, where students are unable to attend in-person after being exposed to COVID-19 in the community, at home, or at school. 

Youth-Giveaway-Vax.jpgOf course, it goes without saying that if your child is 12 or older, the best course of action is to ensure they're vaccinated. For our older students, this can dramatically improve the safety of attending in-person and should not be overlooked. Just this week, the FDA announced it has approved full authorization to the Pfizer vaccine. The District is providing some great prizes for young people getting vaccinated, including free AirPods!

For parents getting ready to send students back to school, here's what to expect on the first day:

Mask Requirements

Every person on school property will be required to wear a face mask. Masks may be removed for eating, drinking, and during nap time for pre-k students. Students must also wear masks when outside during recess, during before/after school care, and all other activities. As parents, let's drive home the importance of wearing your mask to our children to make life easier for our school staff.

Lunchtime: Most students will be eating lunch in the cafeteria pending any moves to outdoor lunch. Large HEPA filters are being installed in all school cafeterias to enable older students to eat outside of their classroom. The most common exception is for pre-k and kindergarten students who will eat lunch in their classrooms to reduce exposure to other student groups. Every classroom will be outfitted with a small air filtration unit.

Athletics - Except when actively playing, student athletes will also be required to wear masks and maintain physical distancing when participating in higher risk sports (this includes those high-contact sports such as wrestling, football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, martial arts, rugby, soccer, cheerleading, etc.).

COVID-19 Testing

COVID-19 testing will be conducted weekly by a saliva test by trained school staff or a deployed testing vendor. This weekly testing will include a random sampling of 10-20% of students and all unvaccinated staff. The results will be available to families and staff within 6-8 hours and school communities will be notified of positive test results within their student's classroom and/or school building.

  • As testing is considered a medical procedure, all students and staff must submit an active consent form, available here: COVID-19 Testing Consent Form
  • I will note that I am concerned on two fronts here. First, asymptomatic testing is an important part of a public health safety and prevention program. And while we need to ask for parents' consent to take a saliva test, I think we would see far higher participation with an "opt-out" rather than an "opt-in". And second, the current consent form has troubling language that requires parents to waive all liability if their child contracts COVID-19 at school. This sets up a very unequal situation where parents that sign the form and those that don't will have potentially different liability questions. I've asked OSSE for more information about this and to make changes. 

Quarantine Guidance

When a student or staff member tests positive, they will be required to isolate for at least 10 days and show improvement of symptoms (including no fever for 24 hours) before returning to school. Students who are required to quarantine will be provided with a device for learning at home.

New this year, there will also be quarantine requirements for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive - an extension of the District's contact tracing work. A student in a school setting is determined to be in "close contact" when they spend 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person within a 24-hour window within two days prior to illness onset or a positive test result.

There is, however, an exception to these close contact guidelines: students are not considered to be in close contact if they are consistently wearing well-fitting masks and other mitigating factors are in place (such as physical distancing or increased ventilation).

When close contact is established:

  • Unvaccinated Students & Staff - When an unvaccinated student or staff member is in close contact with someone who tests positive, he/she will be required to quarantine for at least seven days. If the student or staff member tests negative on or after day five of this quarantine period, they will be permitted to return to the classroom. If no testing is conducted, then the quarantine period is extended to 10 days.
  • Vaccinated Students & Staff - When a vaccinated student or staff member comes into close contact with someone who tests positive, but they do not experience any symptoms, then they do not need to quarantine. It is recommended that they are tested three to five days after the initial exposure.

Next Steps

I'll be honest - I'm as anxious as many of you are. I recognize how hard this moment is - both as your Councilmember and a father of two DCPS students. But after hours and hours of Council hearings with school leaders and the public and months to plan, and a burning desire to feel optimistic heading into a new school year, I still feel parts of the preparations lagging behind. Nothing was shared that indicated any planning on if a pivot to virtual learning is needed. No real effort was made to allow families to offer a virtual learning option - something I have consistently said we need to be prepared to offer until all students can be vaccinated and our COVID case numbers are improved. 

After touring schools last week, I found teachers excited to welcome students back and working hard to create a safe and engaging classroom. But I also found buildings with HVAC issues, which not only affects everyone's comfort and safety as we continue to experience heat emergency days, but it also impacts the effectiveness of air filtration and ventilation needed to decrease COVID's spread indoors. I wish there was a more rigorous effort to head off larger, riskier activities such as eating lunch indoors, but many of the schools I visited are still waiting to receive the outdoor furniture and equipment they ordered many months ago through DCPS. I truly believe our principals and school staff are preparing to do the very best they can to protect and teach our children, but I'm concerned about some of the guidance they're being asked to implement. 

Monday begins school for many, but it won't mean the end of watching and responding to what we're seeing in real time. As a public school parent who's weighing all these concerns for my own kids, I want all parents to have faith and trust in their school. As I mentioned at the top, I'm hosting a Virtual Town Hall (REGISTRATION LINK HERE) this Thursday, August 26, at 8 pm. I've invited several leaders across the local education space to provide more viewpoints and I'll be there to share information and answer your questions. I want to hear from parents:

  • Are you comfortable with the plans in place for your DCPS or DC Public Charter School? 
  • What else would you like to see in place? 
  • Would you prefer more robust virtual learning options?
  • What more can give you the greatest amount of confidence for the school year?

Thanks as always and hope to see you soon,

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