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Small number of students return to DC classrooms, unions worry about safety

DCPS' CARES program is bringing approximately 400 students back into 25 D.C. schools now, with more students returning in December and January.

WASHINGTON — As the COVID-19 virus surges throughout the nation, a very limited number of children are back in D.C. public school classrooms for the first time in eight months.

Thursday marked day two of what the school system is calling its CARE program, which is bringing 400 elementary students into 25 schools in the city.

At the same time, employee unions, including the Washington Teachers' Union are renewing demands for protections before agreeing to anymore moves toward in-person learning.

RELATED: Washington Teachers' Union will not sign agreement to reopen DC Public Schools

At schools like Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast D.C., CARE has moved forward with just 18 children and plans to expand the program to at least 60, according to Principal Gwendolyn Payton. 

Payton explained that while the children are back in the school building, they are continuing to do distance learning with their teachers who are appearing on computers from home. However, the students are supervised by workers serving as the equivalent of teacher’s aides.

“The teacher is providing the instruction and the facilitator is there to assist with logging on, breaks, recess, lunch, and support that they may need to address a particular problem in the classroom," Payton said. 

Systemwide, CARE remains a very limited reintroduction of children back into school buildings:

  • Only 400 kids preK through fifth grade are back so far
  • Socially distanced classrooms with no more than 10 in a class
  • 25 schools participating
  • Priority for students with special learning needs or difficult home environments

RELATED: DC Public Schools welcome some students back to the classroom

“It was good to see them and we wanted to greet them in a welcoming and warm kind of way," Payton said.  "We couldn't put arms around them and hug you know. But everyone's getting that elbow, you know, the air high five. This is where they belong.”

The unions, however, remain concerned about safety.

On Thursday, seven unions representing teachers and other school employees issued a letter to Chancellor Ferebee and Mayor Bowser demanding more information about PPE, supplies and training for CARE staffers. Many CARE workers are outside contractors being paid for with special grants, according to DCPS administrators and the unions.

Here are the specific demands the unions are asking for: 

  • PPE & safety equipment- description of supplies and which staff will be provided
  • Training - to prepare all DC Public School staff for COVID safety and health procedures, including appropriate classroom management training for all staff assigned to CARE classrooms
  • A commitment to all workers, including those in contracted positions
  • Clear and public metrics on the safety measurements of all DCPS buildings
  • Verification of all required facility improvements -- schedule “verification tours” of schools with unions representing all school workers, along with training on safety measures

"We believe that the dual priorities of getting our kids back to the classroom and keeping our community safe from COVID-19 can happen successfully if we all work together," the letter said. "We are committed to the goal of having schools reopen safely for in-person learning, and when they do open, to prioritize the most vulnerable of students, of every age group and in every neighborhood." 

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