We’re Better Than This: Getting To Healthier Covid Policies In DCPS

Almost 2 years into a pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans, let us explore where DCPS is at–and where we need to be.

DCPS has yet to meet its target of 20% testing of students each week—despite emergency legislation (which expired on January 15) calling for at least that level starting in November. The school system also has no formal contact tracers (despite the mayor promising the same months ago), and there are reports of kids going to school sick. Perhaps not surprisingly, DCPS rates of covid have been above the city average, and getting all students KN95 masks and a remote option appear to be distant dreams. And while DCPS’s recently announced Sunday testing program for prekindergarten students (all necessarily unvaccinated, with meals and naps without masks) followed by kinda, sorta test-to-stay is better than nothing, it is still not a real test-to-stay program, which would involve 100% of students daily, in coordination with robust notification (i.e., including exposure dates, which DCPS notifications don’t include anymore).

Yet, for all that DC is fortunate to have great resources and voices on how to get to a better and safer place in our schools in this pandemic. Read on for how our schools can be safer, with all twitter posts reprinted with permission of their authors.

–Back in October 2021, several ANC commissioners in Ward 4 asked that DCPS test up to 100% of students and staff weekly. Read it here.

–Last week, DC parent-, teacher-, and citizen-led group DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools came up with an excellent resource for mayoral candidates on 100% testing in our schools. Read it here.

The group also has this excellent list of recommendations for school safety (also linked below in Resources).

–On January 31, DC’s department of health released new covid guidelines for schools. Invaluable covid twitter feed @DCPSCovidCases has a complete analysis of the guidelines and here identifies some problems with the new guidelines’ test-to-stay alternative to quarantine for close contacts:

“Test-to-stay (TTS) can only be used if the exposure happened at school (why?) and both people were properly masked and people are asymptomatic. Have you met schools? Kids have their masks off for 20-150 minutes a day, so this is reckless.

“Testing needs to happen 2x: immediately (within 24 hours), and then then again 5-7 days later. Sooo again DCPS: what’s the plan for schools? Your preK TTS plan doesn’t do this correctly.

“If a [preK] kid is a close contact from a Friday exposure, they haven’t been tested within 24 hours if the test is given on Sunday, and then testing again on Tuesday only gives 4 days from exposure, not 5. What’s the plan to actually follow TTS guidance and test 2x at the appropriate intervals?”

–Another informative twitter feed, @phrederica, last week outlined what 100% testing could mean for our schools generally and DCPS specifically:

“A few weeks ago, I pitched 100% testing in DCPS. The data showed that DC’s COVID case rate was likely significantly curbed by just one day of testing all DCPS students and staff.

“This memo to mayoral candidates [linked below, in Resources, from DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools] about DCPS testing adds new data points, new supporting arguments, and is updated to consider recent testing changes. Some highlights:

“Between August and the end of 2021, because DCPS refused to test between 80 and 98% of the kids, they missed about 9,000 cases. Those folks walked right through the school doors. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that during that time, there were 216 separate school-based outbreaks (which includes non-DCPS schools in DC) during the same time period. Each involved an undisclosed number of people.

“In the 3-day week of school at the end of 2021 alone, it looks like there were 43 separate school-based outbreaks.

“Building on a tweet from the previous thread about the city-wide impact of January’s 1-day test-drive [January 4 and 5] of 100% DCPS testing: 2,967 positive DCPS tests meant those folks didn’t cause a school-based outbreak. That was about a third of the entire city’s new cases that day.

“So DCPS students and staff, who comprise about 8% of DC’s population (less, if you subtract the staff living in VA or MD), represented about 35% of the city’s cases that day, at the height of the omicron wave.

“You want to focus valuable resources to slow an outbreak? Find the hotspots where you can protect the most people, equitably. Along with other interventions, test liberally in those hotspots to impede transmission. Judging by this data, DCPS appears to be a hotspot.

“If 100% testing was in place when DC Families for COVID-Safer Schools proposed it in the beginning of the school year, imagine what it might have done to DC’s Delta wave. To the omicron wave. And what could it do if it was in place before the next wave?

“100% DCPS testing protects students and staff, improves continuity of education (along with daily testing in lieu of quarantining), and erodes city-wide transmission. Gratitude for the mayoral candidates who have shown support for this memo and 100% testing, starting with Robert White and Michael Campbell and @Andre4DC and @jamesbutler4dc. I hope the candidates for Council Chair will read it as well.”

–Also last week, the twitter feed @DCPSCovidCases discussed how DCPS can and should do better in the sheer mechanics of testing in schools:

“As you hopefully know by now, DCPS schools do asymptomatic saliva covid testing for what is supposed to be a random 20% of their student body. We’ve had problems at every turn with asymptomatic testing.

“The testing is contracted out through Shield T3 and due to the contract, apparently nasal swab tests can’t be done for asymptomatic testing. That means young students and students with disabilities haven’t been able to produce enough saliva/spit on command and haven’t gotten tested.

“Kids have literally cried over this, teachers have had kids spit into test tubes in their hands, and spitting as a behavioral issue is way up in early childhood classrooms. Many schools don’t actually test randomly, testing the same kids every week.

“Shield T3 often runs late/finishes too early and has insisted on occasion that they need only test 20%, not above it as has been promised. They seemed to think they’d get in trouble for testing more than 20% until their bosses were contacted by admin to clear things up.

“And the asymptomatic testing is always a super-spreader event waiting to happen. Kids are together in the hallway or a room, all maskless and spitting together. A literal nightmare to walk through for people just trying to get by, let alone stay and supervise students.

“As I’ve said before, DCPS has NEVER (not in 5 months) hit the required 20% of students they are required by law to test weekly. Graph here for the interested.”

–While restoration of paid covid leave for DCPS teachers is good, it isn’t all that it seems, as @DCPSCovidCases explores below (from a thread on January 28):

“This November, when paid covid leave lapsed for DCPS employees, it was immediately obvious to DCPS folks that this wrong needed to be righted.

“Teachers and school staff have burned SO many hours of personal and sick leave and have also had to resort to leave without pay when they run out of the first two kinds of leave.

“That means the people caring for our students have been forced to go UNPAID if they catch covid-19. You all already know how ridiculous I find that, and I was slightly relieved when paid covid leave went back on the table this month [January].

Do not mistake my relief for genuine excitement. This still doesn’t apply to folks who have to isolate due their child or family member catching covid, and this should have been in place before the other leave ended in November.

“Anyway, paid covid leave was announced on January 19, and now DCPS employees should theoretically be able to use this “Personal Pandemic Leave” till April 2. I had assumed things with this were fine and hoped that people could finally get paid!

“As stated in an email from ES Communications to DCPS staff, “This paid leave benefit allows eligible employees to take up to 80 hours of leave without loss of pay or other benefits if they test positive for COVID-19.” Letter with more info here.

“Yes, some employees can still avoid taking leave and telework instead (as is promised in the WTU’s latest memorandum of agreement but harder to make happen in practice), but up to 80 hours of personal covid leave sounded like a win to me!

“It was said that information to timekeepers was forthcoming so people could actually get paid properly with the code in timesheets for personal pandemic leave.

“But silly of me to assume the best from DCPS! Someone let me know that when they got covid this week, they were told they’d still need to use their personal and sick leave and then leave without pay!

“Apparently corrections in the leave banks of staff will be made later in regard to this, but how is this acceptable? This type of leave was put into place on January 19 (retroactive to December 1), and this is where we’re at today? DCPS chancellor and Mayor Bowser, I need you to do SO much better than this. These are people’s finances and health you’re toying with, and this needs to be fixed ASAP!”

Resources:

DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools testing recommendations (created for mayoral candidates): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pjOnareHNCAt6E68jOhAXne23TsQQdIBOvN7HMoczKs/edit

DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools general recommendations (January 2022): https://docs.google.com/file/d/15DBDQRJPc_e6TNEOiWRfMxIHz0RvIZjl/edit?filetype=msword

Ward 5 ed equity committee recommendations: https://twitter.com/Ward5EEC/status/1486384200974491660

Students for Safe Learning recommendations here and here.

Dashboard of DC school covid stats, created by a DC teacher: https://dcpscoviddash.wixsite.com/website

Chart of all DCPS cases and quarantines by school, created by a DCPS parent: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ZT2XxxtPqtrEJKWsmErz7YkR-UYzvJaV-3aOZYcswBk/edit#gid=558896752

DC school-based testing results: https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/covid-19-school-based-testing-program

Twitter clarity regarding DCPS covid notification: https://twitter.com/DCPSCovidCases

Official DCPS covid notifications: https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/category/articles/

Archived official DCPS covid notifications: https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/health/response/notifications/

DCPS infections and quarantines: https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/dc-public-schools-dcps-data

Covid cases in all DC schools (private, publicly funded, and parochial): https://coronavirus.dc.gov/data/schools

Graph of DC covid cases by age: https://dccovid.com/ages.html

Covid data for DC kids and kids in other jurisdictions: https://www.covkidproject.org

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