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'We are concerned' | DC State Board of Education recommends big changes days ahead of school year start

The board is recommending more virtual learning, weekly testing for all and emergency funding for mental health support among other requests.

WASHINGTON — The DC State Board of Education has called on Mayor Muriel Bowser to make a host of alterations to this year’s back-to-school plans, just days ahead of the Monday, Aug. 30 start date.

“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," the board wrote in a collective letter to Mayor Bowser.

DCPS currently offers virtual instruction to students with documented medical needs. "Each student in a household that needs virtual learning should complete online registration and upload a form signed by their doctor," their policy reads.

The board requests that Bowser allow all Local Education Agencies to add a hybrid or fully virtual option for all families who request it. In addition, the Board asks that attendance policies are made to be more flexible when concerning excused absences and expand the definition of health need exemption with in-person learning to include household member health concerns. 

At a press conference on Wednesday, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee was asked about the specific request of providing additional virtual learning options and qualifications, to which he responded that requested changes to the policy are not currently being implemented.

"We believe the best place for students to learn is in the classroom. We know that there are some students, for medical reasons, may need to learn virtually and we provided that option accordingly," the Chancellor said.

When further pressed regarding the fact that some students may have immunocompromised family members and are under the age of 12; therefore currently unable to be vaccinated and desire a virtual schooling option for that reason, Ferebee said alternative plans are being considered. However, no alternatives are currently in place - just three days before the start of the school year.

"We will continue to consider options for those students, but for right now we expect those students to be in school like all of our students in the District under the age of 12," he said.

The Board of Education also goes on to request that the referral attendance policy be altered so that the State Superintendent of Education can instead issue an emergency rulemaking to suspend referrals for COVID-19 related absences to the Child and Family Services Agency. 

Click here to read the attendance policy.

RELATED: Parents looking for more virtual options from DC Public Schools

The list of requests continues, with recommendations to test all students and staff each week. The current policy states that 10-20% of students will be randomly tested each week for COVID-19, utilizing saliva-based PCR testing, with written consent. All unvaccinated staff will also receive a weekly COVID-19 test. Results for all will be available to families and staff via a secure portal in an average of 6-8 hours, the school district details on their reopening plan website

RELATED: DC Auditor: DCPS failed to meet CDC, DC Health guidelines for COVID-19 testing of in-person students

The board also stated that it would be in support of a vaccination mandate for all students over the age of 16. Currently, the school district has a vaccination or weekly testing requirement for all staff. All students 12 and older are also highly encouraged to get vaccinated, the District says, but it is not a requirement to attend school.

Lastly, the board asks that the mayor devote emergency funding and services dedicated to mental health for all District students and teachers. The school district's current resources can be found here.

“The recent tragic loss of a District student has reminded us all that the technical return to a building is only a small part of the larger considerations around the start of this school year,” the board said in their letter. “Schools should be intensively focused on re-socialization, counseling, and understanding what interactions or conflicts between individual students may have been brewing over the last eighteen months.”

RELATED: Teen stabbed to death by another student outside their school, police say

Read the letter in full below:

The Honorable Muriel Bowser Mayor

1350 Pennsylvania Ave, NW

Washington, D.C. 20004 

Dear Mayor Bowser:

We want to acknowledge the hard work that you and your team have done in planning for a successful 2021--2022 school year. Challenging in normal times, this year’s back-to-school efforts are complicated to a nearly impossible degree by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The stress and strain on District students, families, and educators have been immense. We provide recommendations below based on input we have received from them [1]. We believe the implementation of these recommendations will greatly decrease the level of community stress and mitigate infection rates within our schools.

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. 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. Therefore, we encourage you to allow all Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to add a hybrid or fully virtual option for all families who request it and make additional efforts to ensure school communities understand transition plans if a school closure is warranted.

We are confident that many families will elect to send their students in-person five days a week, but, for those that believe a different option is best for them, we believe it is important to provide options until the pandemic is over, or at least until infection rates have substantially decreased. To facilitate this decision-making process, we recommend adjusting attendance policies to provide additional flexibility for excused absences. It may also be helpful to explore adjustments to the 15-day waiting period for homeschooling so that students can shift more easily.

Current requirements for medical waivers for in-person learning are extremely limited. We have heard that some households’ members who are immunocompromised, vaccine ineligible or otherwise medically fragile have not applied for a waiver. Considering the ease at which COVID19 spreads, we urge you to consider expanding the definition of health need exemption to in-person learning to include household member health concerns.

We are concerned with the potential impact on families if the regular process of attendance referrals to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) is maintained during the pandemic. It is our understanding that COVID-19 related absences are counted towards the total for referrals to CFSA. We urge you to direct the State Superintendent of Education to issue an emergency rulemaking to suspend referrals for COVID-19 related absences.

The plan to test ten percent (10%) of unvaccinated students and staff each week is a good start to ensuring safety in our schools. However, based on information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the DC Department of Health (DOH) that vaccinated individuals may also be carriers for new variants of the COVID-19 virus, we advise extending the testing to all students and staff. We believe this action will not only provide better information for contact tracing and prevention, but also help increase community confidence in the safety of schools. Further, the forms required for testing should allow for digital signatures and should be made readily available at back-to-school events so that it is easier for families to submit the forms efficiently and more equitably.

We are grateful that you have issued an order requiring all District government employees, contractors, and interns to be vaccinated. The State Board will be proposing a policy with a similar requirement for our representatives, employees, fellows, and contractors at our September 15, 2021, Public Meeting. We would be supportive of a requirement for students sixteen years or older to be vaccinated for COVID-19 in line with CDC recommendations and Food and Drug Administration approval.

We believe that you should also consider issuing a new public health emergency to ensure that LEAs do not have to pay out of pocket for the COVID-19 testing. To ensure the testing plan, and the isolation of students or staff during a school day, we are concerned with reports that school nurses (under contract through DOH) are not permitted to be the leads on COVID-19 related health issues during the school day. We would appreciate you clarifying the responsibility of school nurses in these situations.

The recent tragic loss of a District student has reminded us all that the technical return to a building is only a small part of the larger considerations around the start of this school year. Schools should be intensively focused on re-socialization, counseling, and understanding what interactions or conflicts between individual students may have been brewing over the last eighteen months. We urge you to devote emergency funding and services dedicated to mental health for all District students and teachers. We are hopeful that LEAs would also consider ways to build capacity within school communities for intensive social emotional and mental health supports by reducing student-adult ratios and increasing the number of appropriate support staff.

Finally, we appreciate the Administration’s expansion of funding for outdoor opportunities for students. Being outdoors greatly mitigates the spread of the virus, which is especially important during times when students cannot wear masks, such as during lunch. As students return to in-person learning this school year, the State Board commits to using its engagement platforms to ensure that all school leaders understand what may be possible for outdoor opportunities for lunch and learning. We will also ask that you direct the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education to ensure that schools have the resources they need to fully utilize funding and materials available to them to create and maintain such opportunities.

Thank you for reviewing these recommendations. As always, the State Board stands ready to partner with your Administration to serve our students equitably and fully.

 

The DC State Board of Education

Zachary Parker, President and Ward 5 Representative

Emily Gasoi, Vice President and Ward 1 Representative

Jacque Patterson, At-Large Representative

Allister Chang, Ward 2 Representative

Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3 Representative

Frazier O’Leary, Ward 4 Representative

Jessica Sutter, Ward 6 Representative

Eboni-Rose Thompson, Ward 7 Representative

Carlene Reid, Ward 8 Representative

Alex O’Sullivan, Student Representative

Juliana Lopez, Student Representative

Ean Bowie, Student Representative

Skye-Ali Johnson, Student Representative

[1] Our August 18th public meeting was devoted to hearing from the public. We are encouraged by the passion and thoughtful suggestions made during that meeting. Our staff has summarized the testimony and suggestions in a memorandum that we are attaching to this letter for your further consideration.

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