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'They're using our kids as guinea pigs' | Parents say DCPS is rushing return to classroom for summer program

DCPS' Volunteer Summer Bridge program starts Aug. 10.

WASHINGTON — Some D.C. students could be returning to the classroom in mid-August with the volunteer Summer Bridge Program, designed to help students transition to different schools. 

But critics fear DC Public Schools is rushing the return to the classroom.  

“It really surprised me like, ‘Oh, this is happening. Okay!” DCPS mom Maria Helena Carey said.

Typically the Summer Bridge Program is used to transition students between elementary and middle school, or middle to high school. This year, it is open to rising third, sixth and ninth-graders. Carey was surprised to discover it was still on for Aug. 10, and then she read the fine print. 

“They're using these students, as guinea pigs basically to handle the program,” she said. 

Carey forwarded WUSA9 email guidance sent from her sons’ school. According to the notice with DCPS letterhead, one of the goals of the program this year is to “Allow schools teams to refine new health protocols for in-person learning.” 

“Guinea pig sounds terrible, but I mean, you're refining the program with these children who are the first ones to have to go back into a school building," she said.

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DCPS did not answer our reporter’s questions via email but sent this statement: Grades 3, 6 and 9 are transitional years for students, and Summer Bridge is an opportunity for them to attend school for a half-day, in-person, in small groups and get to know their new peers and teachers who are also part of the program. We are following DC Health guidelines and will prioritize safety by ensuring robust health and safety protocols are in place for staff and students. The number of students and instructors in each classroom will be limited, students will remain in their cohort during their time at school, physical distancing will be strictly enforced, and face masks will be provided each day for students and staff. DC Public Schools is continuing to plan for a safe and successful start to the next school year for our students and staff. We will share more details on we are planning to reopen strong in the coming days. 

The letter sent to parents says the two-week program lasts four hours a day. To adhere to social distancing protocols, the average classroom will have a ratio of eight students to one teacher with a room capacity of 12. Enhanced cleaning, mask distribution and daily temperature checks will also be required 

“The program will take place at your child’s school in accordance with D.C. health guidelines,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said during her daily briefing Monday.

 According to the school department’s preliminary reopening plan, the same guidelines are required by the Health Department should students return to the classrooms in the fall.  

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“I think it's unrealistic to think that DCPS will be ready, with somebody taking everybody's temperature, with medical-grade filters in all of the facilities, some of which are older, and you know, not as well taken care of as they could be,” Carey said.  

Carey said she knows she has the privilege to keep her children at home, but said many parents simply don’t have that option.

She said as well-meaning as the school system may be, the hurdles may be too large to overcome, especially in a matter of weeks.

“I don't know how you can say ‘yes, absolutely, it is completely safe for us to be here, for children to be here, for older teachers to be here, for immune-compromised teachers, for medically-fragile students,” Carey said. "They really cannot say that. Not the way that things have been happening.”

Registration for the Summer Bridge program ends Tuesday, July 14 at 6 p.m. According to the letter sent to parents, the program is targeting more than 11,000 students. There's been no word on how many have applied to be part of the in-person program so far.

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