Mayor Muriel and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee District of Columbia Public Schools. (Courtesy Photo)

By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO

Just days before the District of Columbia’s 90,000 students returned to in-person instruction, the D.C. State Board of Education has called on Mayor Muriel Bowser to create more virtual options for families who are concerned about sending their students to engage face-to-face learning in the midst of rising cases of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant. 

In a letter to Mayor Bowser signed by the entire State Board of Education, Board members are requesting that Bowser provide more options for students to choose virtual and hybrid learning at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.  

“Through our engagement efforts and public meetings throughout the summer, the State Board has heard from many residents who are concerned about the safety of their students returning to school,” the letter stated. 

Earlier this year, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced in-person instruction would be the default mode for all K-12 D.C. Public School students this Fall.  

“We agree with you that in-person learning should be a priority for all schools in the District. However, we are concerned that many families remain fearful of sending students back in the middle of a surge in infections,” Board members said. 

Ferebee stated students must secure medical waivers to become eligible for virtual learning.  

But State School Board members are pushing back on medical requirements for students to remain out of school and requesting more options and flexibility for students to learn this Fall.  

“We believe it is important to provide options until the pandemic is over, or at least until infection rates have substantially decreased,” the State School Board members requested. 

“To facilitate this decision-making process, we recommend adjusting attendance policies to provide additional flexibility for excused absences,” the letter added. 

The DC State Board of Education’s recent appeal to Bowser coincides with a petition signed by close to 1500 DC Public School parents requesting Bowser and Ferebee provide a virtual option until a vaccine is available for younger children.  

“We ask Mayor Muriel Bowser and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee to provide a virtual learning option for families until children under 12 are vaccinated. This is reasonable given the rise in cases in D.C. and the exponentially increasing cases in children under 12,” stated the letter coordinated through   

Currently less than 30 percent of children under the age of 18 who reside in the District are vaccinated, according to D.C. Government data. 

“For many of us, without a choice of virtual school, we will need to pull them out of DCPS altogether and homeschool them,” the parent petition added.  

Just this week, Bowser changed requirements for a COVID-19 saliva test that will be given to D.C. Public School students.  Originally, Bowser and Acting State School Board Superintendent Christina Grant proposed an opt-in parental consent saliva test that would randomly be given to 10-15 percent of asymptomatic D.C. Public school children each week.  Grant said the recommendations came from the D.C. Department of Public Health. 

Now, Bowser has stated the student saliva test will be administered in schools as an opt-out rather than an opt-in test, meaning D.C. Public Schools students will automatically be given the COVID-19 saliva test unless parents sign forms preventing their student from taking the test.  

Parents have expressed concern about the low percentage of COVID-19 testing done in D.C. Public Schools for months. Parents have complained that school officials are not capturing and reporting out data on the full number of infections in District schools because not enough children are being tested.  

The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor released a report in August indicating less than half of students attending in-person classes in Spring 2020 returned the permission forms to be tested for COVID-19.   

Erin Roth, Director of Education Research with the D.C. Auditor’s Office said that getting consent forms signed and returned to schools for an opt-in testing program would be much more complicated in the Fall with more students coming to school each day. 

However, neither Mayor Bowser nor Ferebee have signaled any flexibility in adding more virtual options to the current D.C. Public School plan. 

“We know that the best place for students to learn and thrive is in spaces specifically designed to support young learners where they can be in-person with the best teaching workforce in the nation,” Bowser said on Aug. 30 at a Welcome Back to School event at Eliot-Hine Middle School. 

“While this school year will feel different, we know the best place for our students to learn is in the classroom,” Ferebee added. 

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