DC Schools January 2022: Don’t Look Up

The other day, I posted this about the interesting time we had in DCPS in the week before winter break.

Turns out, we’re poised to have an even more interesting time this week!

Unlike what I had noted in that blog post (that DCPS cancelled all asymptomatic testing before winter break), some DCPS schools in fact did have asymptomatic testing that week—albeit only on Monday of that week (12/20), which means that whatever cases could have been identified by DCPS in its testing program before winter break were mostly missed.

Not to mention that there are still no covid notifications posted here for my child’s school beyond one, dated 12/9/21—nor has anyone reached out to us for contact tracing since we received an ominous note on 12/23 from the DCPS covid response team saying that because our school had lots of cases, and contact tracing was not proceeding well, my child was presumed to be a close contact.

We are not the only people reporting this disturbing (and publicly unhealthy) disconnect. As it is, this site for reporting cases in DCPS has had blank spots for data for the last FOUR days.

Whether one regards all that as only fair during a major holiday time–or a terrible breach of trust, threatening public safety–is about to be rendered completely irrelevant in light of DCPS’s determination to return to in person learning on January 5.

Specifically:

On December 29, the mayor held a situational update in which it was announced that DCPS was instituting a test-to-return policy for the first day after break, January 5, 2022.

What should have been welcome news was unfortunately not followed through with the next logical thing, which was to figure out how to deliver instruction to children who either do not test at all by January 5 or who test positive (not to mention also figuring out how to square holiday travel quarantine rules with the insistence on testing students only on January 4).

The response to date to all of that from city leaders is that children who do not test by January 5 or who test positive would be turned away from their schools.

(Waiting to hear all the folks bleating about learning loss to complain about this complete denial of education.)

The next day, DCPS held a hastily called town hall on the return to school. It featured a variety of appointed leaders, including the chancellor, the DCPS COO Ely Ross, and several health officials. It was run by Tomas Talamante, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.

Notwithstanding the odd situation of someone who has nothing to do directly with our schools or public health running an education and public health meeting, the hour-long session featured clarification of how to test and where to get tests. It was attended by almost 1000 people besides DCPS staff and other officials.

But the organizers of the town hall not only didn’t allow the public to speak, but also didn’t answer many of the questions posted in the chat. In fact, so many questions were posted in the chat that remain unanswered that I copied as much of the chat as I could, which amounted to 50-some pages of sheer vaccine/test distrust mixed with basic questions to which we likely will never have answers, like: how are children who don’t present a test on January 5 going to receive the instruction that DC is legally obliged to provide them?

Naturally, the video of the town hall doesn’t have the chat—so most of the questions and comments have been essentially disappeared from the public record.

(Enjoying mayoral control?)

Anyhoo, because of the relative silence regarding the safety of returning to in person learning in the wake of a massive rise in cases in DC; a quarter of DCPS students and a third of staff in quarantine by winter break; and continued poor data reporting (now without dates!), alongside the fact that DC has spent to date less than 20% of the federal monies allocated for keeping schools safe, I asked all council members via this email to demand that the mayor immediately change course by having all schools be virtual through this month and instituting a number of increased safety measures.

For a slightly different perspective on this same problem, see the plea below from another DC parent, copied to every DC council member, Mayor Bowser, the chancellor, and deputy mayor for education.

Apparently in response to similar missives of desperation, several council members sent . . . letters.

(See here for those from council members Silverman, Nadeau, Cheh, and Lewis George.)

No word yet on responses to those letters–or other actions from other elected officials in response to parents’ pleas.

For those of us now with either frantic children who are old enough to recognize the dangers they are being asked to assume this coming Wednesday–or with frantic and/or fragile immune systems–the decorous politeness of DC’s leadership at this moment seems, well, mismatched to the problem at hand. Maybe our public servants are confusing children and school staff (who have no choice about being in person starting January 5) with the legions of happy people streaming to DC restaurants purely out of enjoyment (and with the added safety of eating outdoors with heaters, bought in part with DC taxpayer funds–an option most if not all of our publicly funded schools currently lack). Or maybe DC’s leaders are simply worried about angering folks who prioritize job creation over the safety of kids.

To be sure, few in DC leadership seem to recall the wise counsel that if we had only made remote learning a natural option in 2020, it wouldn’t be a big leap now—and that “mild” covid is but in the eye of the sufferer.

So, ring in the new year by (once again!) demanding our public servants (i.e., those who took an oath of office to serve all of us the people) to provide basic health measures in our schools to address the current surge of covid, including KN95 masks for all kids—and testing all students and staff every week—and making HVAC repairs immediately in all our schools—and providing one-to-one devices for all students so that when we have to move to virtual (which is, for the record, an invaluable tool in a pandemic, not a deprivation of education), we can do so.

And once more for those in the back: Yes, this is an emergency—which is what all that federal money is for.

—————————————————————————————

Letter from a DCPS parent to the U.S. secretary of education, December 31, 2021:

Secretary Cardona,

I am writing in response to your recent comments on CNN.

We live in Washington DC where we attend public schools. We have a 5- and 4-year-old in the same Pre-K4 classroom, where one receives services through an IEP. The 5-year-old is partially vaccinated and will receive their second shot today (if we could figure out where to go, as I am sure you will see from the attached screen shot . . . DC can’t even update their covid resources website in a timely fashion). We love our school and have a great deal of respect for the admin team and the educational staff, including teachers and our multiple service providers. But how the pandemic has been handled in schools here is an absolute atrocity. We are terrified of sending our kids back to school next week.

Last Tuesday [December 21], our family received a notification after 10 pm — sent to my husband only — that we were a close contact for Covid. The notification did not say which child was a close contact and we received no follow-up phone. I manage our children’s schooling after shuttering my small business during Covid. As we BOTH typically receive notices, my husband didn’t ask about the notice until school was closed [on December 23]. I’d just returned from picking up my immune-compromised father from the airport. Panic is a complete understatement. As I couldn’t reach the school, I posted in our class listserv begging any parent with knowledge of infection to contact me. Our teacher called immediately, horrified that we’d received the notice, and angry she’d been given NO indication of there being an infection in her class. She reached out to our principal, who also called immediately . . . to tell me they had no idea who sent the notice or why we received it. We were told it was a mistake, particularly because there was no infection in any of the Early Childhood classrooms. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, until we received notification on Monday [12/27] that there were cases in four of those classrooms. 

Even in an error . . . how can I possibly trust that DCPS and our city’s government are capable of keeping my children safe? The process is so far removed from the schools, with DCPS at one point sending messages directly to parents with the wrong school names listed on auto-generated forms. How am I supposed to believe that with as poor as their record-keeping has been, they will effectively manage testing almost 50,000 students in less than 48 hours for a “safe return”? Then monitor effectively to ensure kids who have not submitted negative results do not accidentally return? Please. This does not take a rocket scientist.

The sad truth is, I have zero confidence in Mayor Bowser and Chancellor Ferebee. And I am losing confidence in our city council’s willingness to step up and demand the necessary changes parents have been calling for that would make a difference, because we are actually interested in the FACTS:

1. DC has the highest Covid hospitalization rates in the nation

–Mayor Bowser doesn’t seem to even be clear on the numbers given her CNN appearance yesterday, during which she stated her “last data” from two days prior showed 108 covid hospitalizations. The correct figure was 358, which was published on the DC Covid dashboard prior to her appearance. The Health and Human Services website showed 514. What are we supposed to believe?

–Regardless, the hospitalization data the DC Dashboard highlights is very misleading. It looks at the % of Covid cases that are currently in the hospital, instead of the number of people hospitalized with Covid. With the explosion of cases, the % hospitalized is very low and going down. In her briefing Tuesday, the Mayor only talked about hospitalizations in reference to this number. Cherry-picking stats in this way paints a false scenario in which DC hospitalizations are IMPROVING. They are not.

2. Pediatric hospitalization rates are also rising in the District.

–The DC Mayor and Chancellor Ferebee are intentionally hiding the number of students in our city who are impacted by Covid, and I believe skewing figures to hide school spread. That article is written by a parent who received the same notification as ours on December 23rd. As you can see from our school’s latest communication, we are now only being told there are cases at our school, but we have no idea if we are a close contact or not. This makes no sense.

–There is an information data drought that threatens parents’ ability to make informed decisions about how to keep their kids safe. Look at this website (https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/dc-public-schools-dcps-data) and observe that the last 3 days of data are blank. Then look at the stats here (https://twitter.com/WendyACronin/status/1476597016901955590)–and ask why the mayor is lying about the total number of covid patients hospitalized in DC.

–The mayor’s plan for returning to school fails to include an educational plan for children who do not test by January 5 or who have a positive test. Many parents have reported a lack of any kind of support or virtual schooling during quarantine. In fact, at a DCPS townhall yesterday, Chancellor Ferebee stated there was NO plan to ensure students who did not do a rapid test would receive ANY instruction or instructional materials. This is a denial of education.

My child has educational needs addressed by a robust IEP that is best met through in person schooling. We have a child who is not eligible to be vaccinated. We desperately need in person schooling to be safe, and it is NOT. At all.

Schools are NOT SAFE, Secretary Cardona. Our family 100% believes that if we send our children to school next week, they will contract this deadly disease. Though they will likely not die, they could. Or may just get really sick, and we have no idea what the long-term impacts might be. You are asking us to make a terrible choice to put them in harm’s way.

Our city and its leadership should be ashamed of itself.

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