The Council held a Public Roundtable on Sept. 21 for parents, advocates and teachers
who are fighting for more virtual and safer social distancing options for students.
(Courtesy Photo)

By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO

A month ago, on Aug. 30, parents of school-aged children across the District expressed anger and concern about District of Columbia Public Schools reopening for in-person instruction. As a means of getting to the bottom of the concerns, members of the District of Columbia City Council listened to more than three hours of testimony from angry parents, advocates of school aged children and teachers during the Council’s Public Roundtable hearing on Sept. 21. “

I’m angry as a mother. I’m angry as a D.C. resident,” said Lajoy Johnson Law, parent of a daughter who was recently sent home on quarantine from D.C. Public Schools.

Law, like the dozens of parents who gave testimony during the virtual hearing, demanded a virtual option for all DCPS families.

There was almost universal agreement by all of the parents who testified throughout the afternoon on the need for more testing for both students and DCPS employees, enhanced ventilation for classrooms, less restrictive attendance policies during COVID-19, more clarity about virtual options for students who are quarantined and outdoor dining options for students at all schools.

Several parents, including those in Wards 7 and 8, expressed concern about the safety of D.C. Public Schools for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Families should not be penalized because they keep their children at home,” said Lorenzo Bell, a father and grandfather of five children attending DCPS.

“Two weeks into the school year and a child in my 5-year olds class tested positive for COVID-19,” Bell said. “I am no longer willing to risk my children’s lives by sending them to school in the middle of this pandemic,” he implored.

Taisha Ward, whose children attend Plummer Elementary School and Jefferson Middle School in Ward 8, expressed outrage that her children who are too young to be vaccinated should be required to use in-person instruction.

“It is impractical, unnecessary and foolish to send children to school who cannot be vaccinated,” Ward admonished. She expressed outrage that a more robust virtual option is not available for parents of young children.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) began the hearing by noting new guidance issued by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Sept. 20, requiring stronger vaccine mandates for DCPS school personnel.

Bowser has now removed the option for DC Public Schools personnel to undergo weekly testing instead of vaccination. All D.C. Public School workers must be vaccinated by Nov. 1. There are no options for school personnel to opt out of taking the vaccine.

The mandate includes all school athletes age 12 and over, all school contractors, volunteers and interns. The mandate extends to DC Public Schools, Charter schools, private schools and child care facilities regulated by the D.C. State Superintendent of Education.

More than 1400 DCPS students are currently in quarantine status according to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee.

The District’s State Board of Education, parents of DCPS children and several D.C. Council members have repeatedly pressed Mayor Muriel Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee for expanded virtual options for students. Currently, only students approved for a medical waiver qualify for virtual learning.

Ferebee recently doubled down on in-person learning as the default option for students.

“The guidance is that there are very few circumstances where students should learn remotely,” Ferebee said after a recent event at Brookland Middle School.

But the announcement requiring all DC Public Schools employees to get vaccinated without exception demonstrates Bowser and Ferebee are beginning to hear the mounting complaints by parents, DC City Council members and other advocates.

DC Public Schools students have also been encouraged to get the COVID-19 vaccination – although it is not currently mandated for DC public school students. School based clinics have been set up at DC Public Schools to give the vaccine to all children 12 and older. Children and their parents who get the vaccine from a school based clinic are eligible for gift certificates.