How strict should requirements to participate in virtual learning be? D.C. Council and Bowser feud over the answer.

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This article was written by Perry Stein of The Washington Post on October 4, 2021.

The Bowser administration continued to feud with the D.C. Council this weekend over which students should qualify to remain home and continue with virtual learning this year.

Six weeks into the academic year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has remained firm and has said that only students who meet a strict health exemption should be allowed to participate in virtual learning. So far, just 286 of the traditional public school system’s 52,000 students have received an exemption from learning in a school building each day. 

The D.C. Council, after hearing hours of parent testimony, plans to introduce emergency legislation Tuesday that would go against the mayor’s policy and expand access to virtual learning to more students with medical conditions and children under 12 who live with adults with certain conditions that would make them at high risk of complications if they contracted the coronavirus.  

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he estimates the legislation would lead to just a few hundred additional students out of school buildings and in virtual learning. The Bowser administration, however, fears it could be in the thousands, which it says could trigger staffing changes that could interrupt schooling for everyone.

“We believe that number is exaggerated and that the number will not be so large,” Mendelson said at a news conference Monday, referring to the administration’s estimate.

On Sunday afternoon, Bowser wrote a letter to the council, saying the proposed legislation disregarded science and urging the council to “reconsider this approach.”

“It is therefore of paramount importance that we do not disrupt our hard-won, in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who are in dire need of consistent and quality instruction and socialization,” Bowser wrote. “As such, I am very troubled and angered by any legislation that aims to disrupt learning or that will tax and burden our schools.”

The measure marks the biggest step that the council has taken to shape school reopenings through legislation since campuses were shut down in March 2020 to contain the spread of the coronavirus. And it represents a relatively unusual instance in which the council is attempting to challenge the mayor’s control of the day-to-day operations of schools outside of passing legislation to direct how the school system spends its money

The emergency bill also calls on the city to increase asymptomatic testing to 20 percent of students at each school every week by Nov. 15. Currently the city says it aims to test between 10 to 20 percent of students each week, but it has struggled to hit that baseline 10 percent threshold. The week of Sept. 20, for example, the city conducted 4,278 asymptomatic tests, fewer than 10 percent of the D.C. Public Schools students attending in-person classes. Twenty-three — or 0.5 percent — of those tests were positive, according to city data.

But there may be limitations to what the council bill can do.

Emergency legislation is prohibited from carrying any cost. Mendelson said he does not anticipate the costs being significant, and the traditional public school system and charters could absorb the costs through existing surpluses in their budgets.Advertisement

“It would cost extra, but we believe that the [local education agencies] can absorb it,” Mendelson said. “Sometimes when an agency doesn’t support something . . . they believe  it will cost millions of dollars.” 

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in an interview Sunday that the emergency legislation could require staffing changes to accommodate more students in virtual learning, which would come with a price tag.

Currently, the 286 students approved for virtual learning are in a separate academy, which has its own principal and teachers. Ferebee said that if the city increased the size of the virtual academy, it would need more teachers.

If the school system decided to keep the new virtual learners in their current schools, that could require teachers to simulcast — which means that teachers would instruct in-person and virtual students at the same time. According to an agreement struck between the city and the Washington Teachers’ Union, teachers who simulcast must be paid at least $300 extra each semester. That money is intended to compensate them for the extra time it takes to plan for the lessons.

“My main concern is how potentially disruptive this can be for in-person learning that we worked so hard to create,” Ferebee said. “We would be at risk of potentially rescheduling students, which would be tough to do given relationships with students. We would hire more teachers.”

The bill also would allow students to receive excused absences if they remain home for pandemic-related reasons. Parents testified at a D.C. Council hearing last month that if one of their children was quarantined and they kept another child home, which the city does not recommend, the sibling would accrue unexcused absences. Too many could lead to a call, and a possible neglect investigation, from the Child and Family Services Agency.

Under the proposed legislation, students could not be unenrolled from a school for too many absences. Ferebee said that students should not be unenrolled if they stay home for coronavirus-related reasons and that he would work to ensure schools follow this.

But in her letter to Mendelson, Bowser slammed the more lenient attendance rule, saying it “conflicts with science,” citing federal public health guidance that says that people who are considered a close contact of someone who is quarantined because they were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus do not need to quarantine.

Mendelson said at his news conference that this legislation does not undermine science. Instead, he said, it goes further than public health guidance.

“If CDC says wear a mask and the council says wear a double mask, that is not disregarding science, this is going beyond it,” Mendelson said. “This bill is not doing anything to jeopardize public safety.”

The emergency bill would also require all families to be notified every time a student or staff member tested positive for the virus in the school.

By Nov. 1, according to the proposal, the District’s health department would have to publicly provide every week the number of students who tested positive, broken down by school and grade level, and the number of staff members who tested positive at each school.

The department would also have to publicize the number of students tested at each school, the results of those tests and the number of students in quarantine, broken down by school and grade. Currently, the city publishes the number of cases detected at schools each week but does not break it down by grade.

Schools have said they still do not have the equipment needed to hold outdoor lunches and classes. The emergency bill would require the city to publish a report every two weeks that showed the list of undelivered requests for outdoor learning equipment, and if and when those orders would be fulfilled.