The D.C. Council is pressing education officials on concerns about safety, transparency and equity as public schools prepare to have nearly 21,000 students return for in-person instruction next month.
During a public discussion Friday, council member Charles Allen told D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee that he thinks DCPS’ “lack of communication has left principals and school leaders blindsided, teachers anxious and feeling ignored, and parents confused and unsure about whether sending their students back to their classrooms is safe.”
Mr. Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, said he does not have faith in DCPS’ “Reopen Strong” plan and suggested a “school-centered model” instead of a “one size fits all” approach.
Under the plan, nearly 21,000 randomly selected students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will have the option to return to school in-person starting Nov. 9. The process reportedly will prioritize students with the “highest needs.”
The District also will offer two at-school instruction options, which include being taught in-person by a teacher or virtually in a student Canvas Academics and Real Engagement (CARE) classroom supervised by a non-instructional staff member. One teacher per grade level will teach in-person, which Mr. Allen said poses equity problems.
Mr. Ferebee said the plan offers the “least disruptive model” for the school system, adding that “additional consideration” will be taken for dual language schools to “maintain integrity” of the programs.
Council member David Grosso, at-large independent and chairman of the Education Committee, also questioned why CARE classrooms would be used instead of in-person instruction.
“Providing more in-person learning classrooms or detailing more elementary teachers to our CARE classrooms would provide more disruption to our ability to have successful virtual learning for our students, which is why we look to our other staff members to assist us in providing supervision for the student CARE classrooms,” Mr. Ferebee said.
Last Tuesday, the Public Employee Relations Board ruled that DCPS had five days to bargain with the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) on reopening plans related to “health and safety matters.”
Mr. Ferebee said Friday that negotiations are almost complete, but two issues remain. He said the union wants “individuals of the community” who are “outside of D.C. government” to decide if a school should reopen, which DCPS will not agree to.
The other issue is the WTU wants teachers to determine “whether they come to work in-person or not,” and Mr. Ferebee said the city is “not gonna agree to that.” The option is reserved for those who have pre-existing health conditions or meet leave requirements.
“If you do not qualify for any of those provisions, we cannot simply say to you, ‘You come to work if you want to,’” he said. “We can’t create a structure that working in-person is completely optional regardless of your situation.”
Members of the public were not allowed to speak during Friday’s two-hour, roundtable discussion, so the WTU held a rally outside City Hall during the meeting.
The union had sent hundreds of questions on the reopening plan to council members, a day after D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson also had sent questions about the plan to lawmakers.