What will schools and classrooms look like when students return next month?

What will schools and classrooms look like when students return next month?

School districts across our region have plans to return some students to school next month, including D.C. Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools — the largest school district in the Washington region.

D.C.’s COVID-19 State of Emergency was set to expire in October, but Mayor Bowser has extended it through the end of the year. So, is this a good idea? Many of the District’s unions for teachers, principals, and nurses say no and are unsatisfied with the plan to reopen.

So, will in-person school move forward, and how safe will it be for our students, teachers and other school staff?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier



  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo for Kids with Musician and PBS Kids Host Steve Songs. But first, most schools in the D.C. region started the school year virtually, but now some districts have plans in the works to return students next month. Fairfax and Loudoun County Public Schools plan to begin to bring small groups of students back later this month. And D.C. Public School teachers were told the plan is to start returning 21,000 students on November 9th. Joining us now is Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:39

    DEBBIE TRUONGThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:00:41

    NNAMDIDebbie, what's the plan for bringing back students in the District?

  • 12:00:46

    TRUONGSo D.C. Public Schools is planning to bring about 21,000 elementary school students back to physical classrooms in November. So students will return to classrooms in one of two ways. Under the first, about 7,000 students will be taught in-person with the teacher leading class lessons. The school system expects to have one of these classes per grade level. Another 14,000 elementary school students will continue taking virtual classes, but they'll be doing it from a physical classroom where they'll be able to get help from a staff member. They'll have opportunities for socialization with their peers like recess and lunch.

  • 12:01:30

    TRUONGD.C. Public Schools is in the process of identifying students for their in-person learning opportunities, and their goal is to prioritize the most vulnerable students. So those who are English language learners, students who are enrolled in special education, and students who belong to low income families.

  • 12:01:48

    NNAMDIWhat do other schools districts in the area have planned with regards to returning to school, Debbie?

  • 12:01:55

    TRUONGSure. So several large Northern Virginia school systems are planning on also bringing some students back to physical classrooms. In Fairfax County, which has the largest school system in Virginia, small groups of students have started returning to in-person learning. They're bringing back students with disabilities, English learners and high school students who are enrolled in certain career and technical classes that require a lot of more hands on instruction. I think it's also important to note that families have the option of continuing with distance learning if they're not comfortable with sending their children back to school.

  • 12:02:33

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Elizabeth Davis, the President of the Washington Teachers Union. Liz Davis, thank you for joining us. Sorry I can't see you.

  • 12:02:41

    ELIZABETH DAVISThank you, Kojo, for inviting me. I'm glad you can't see me.

  • 12:02:46

    NNAMDILiz Davis, what do D.C. teachers think about the mayor's plan to bring back over 20,000 kids next month? And are you surprised the mayor is going forward the plan despite recently extending the state of emergency to the end of the year?

  • 12:03:00

    DAVISExtremely surprised. I had hoped that the mayor and the chancellor were going to follow what's happening in D.C. around COVID-19, the science, the cases that are spiking, the fact that we've been placed under a state of emergency. And, of course, Kojo, I can't tell you how much teachers want to return to in-person learning, but we don't believe it's safe at this time.

  • 12:03:26

    DAVISThe plan put forward by Mayor Bowser will disrupt learning and it basically fails to put the health of our students first. So what teachers have learned from this distance learning is that, you know, it has not been totally successful. They've invested a great deal of time learning new platforms and new technologies as how students learn and it's working, perhaps not for everyone, but for many. And we're seeing engaged students and increased learning happening.

  • 12:03:58

    DAVISBut the teachers who basically left these schools in March understanding that reality is -- and knowing the realities of what existed in their schools before COVID, are not trusting that these facilities will be COVID ready. And when I say COVID ready, Kojo, I'm talking about having those safety protocols instituted in each school that are designated by the CDC, by the D.C. health commissioner and also by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

  • 12:04:32

    DAVISSo we're not opposed to returning to in-person teaching. We want it to be done in a way that is going to ensure that we're not going to increase community spread. That we're not going to spike cases. And we've seen some evidence of what's happened in school districts such as Florida and New York that has done prematurely. We've always known that the relationship that this pandemic has made between DCPS and all of the stakeholders, the workers, nurses, principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, who work in our school, it's imperative that we forge a relationship trust, transparency.

  • 12:05:12

    DAVISSo that everyone, all stakeholders, are aware of the details of what the chancellor and the mayor are saying has been instituted in each of these schools. We want parents and teachers and others to be able to experience -- see the evidence that this has actually happened. So the mayor's plan to bring back 21,000 students. You know, and of course, we learned of this plan at the same the media learned of it. We surveyed teachers last week and over 97 percent of them who responded do not believe that their schools are safe to reopen. The mayor and her team need to do a much better job of communicating what the plan is and what it means for teachers and students.

  • 12:05:54

    NNAMDIWe got a statement from D.C. Public Schools on returning to schools. It says, "D.C. Public Schools is committed to a safe and successful return to in-person learning for our students and staff. With safety and equitable access top of mind, we are actively preparing to welcome students back into our classrooms so that they can receive the high quality instruction and critical supports that prepare them for lifelong success.

  • 12:06:16

    NNAMDIWe'll continue to work closely with Mayor Bowser, D.C. Health and other District agencies and our union partners to implement our plans to welcome staff and students back into our facilities. DCPS is utilizing a set of building readiness standards to ensure every facility is ready to welcome students back to a safe learning environment. The checklist includes HVAC enhancements to increase fresher infiltration. DCPS school building readiness checklist includes the following standards for HVAC enhancements. Schools are equipped with either a direct outside air system or a 13 MERV 14 filters or high efficiency particulate air or HEPA filters."

  • 12:06:58

    NNAMDIBut here's Cedric in Washington D.C. Cedric, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:05

    CEDRICGood afternoon, Kojo. And thank you very much for having me on your show and providing an opportunity to share with your audience. The information that you just shared there in that release is information that has not been sent to me as the chair of the local school advisory team at the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens.

  • 12:07:24

    CEDRICAnd I would venture to say that that probably has not been shared in writing with my counterparts at other schools around the city. I'm a parent of a 4th grader at that school. And, you know, as well as being an elected school leader, and we're in the dark. And what happened to us last week is that our principal, who was trying to get information at our request about the quality of the plan to enhance our HVAC system at our 100 year old school, well, he got fired for asking tough questions. So that is a distressing situation for all of us.

  • 12:08:02

    CEDRICYou know, Principal Trogisch was the head of both of Francis-Stevens campus as well as the high school. And the high school was one of the top performing schools in the nation, certainly the top performing high school in the city. And his leadership has been taken away from us for asking questions designed to protect his students and school community. I just don't understand it.

  • 12:08:24

    NNAMDIThat is, of course, not what the school system is saying. But let's go there, because a number of our callers want to deal with that issue. I'll start with you Liz Davis, because even though the principal of School Without Walls is not a member of the Washington Teachers Union, you have your ear to the ground about just everything that goes on in D.C. schools. So what is your understanding? Why did he leave?

  • 12:08:49

    DAVISAnd I want to acknowledge and I do appreciate Cedric's comments, because Rich Trogisch was using the school safety readiness checklist that was developed by the WTU to conduct this walk through with representatives from the DGS, some members of his teaching staff, some of his parents. And I applaud him for doing that. Even though the safety checklist has not yet been signed off on by the chancellor, he and I are negotiating the terms and conditions of that checklist.

  • 12:09:21

    DAVISBut I shared it with all principals and all of our teachers and parent groups so that they will know exactly what they should be looking for in their schools. The fact that Rich Trogisch stood up and spoke out about the ventilation system in his school, the fact that DGS representatives were not even aware of the need to have MERV 14 and 13 filters installed was disturbing to him. And it should be.

  • 12:09:46

    DAVISBut one of the messages that was -- this dismissal of Rich Trogisch, basically was a way to say to parents in the community, we're not going to tolerate individuals who question or challenge our mandates who are not going to speak truth to power about what actually exists in their school facilities. And Rich Trogisch did that. But there are a number of other principals who know that their schools are not COVID ready, Kojo. But they're not feeling comfortable to speak out and say, my school has not been -- has not had all of the safety protocols instituted that CDC and Department of Health and (word?) says should be in each school.

  • 12:10:28

    DAVISAnd because he did that, he was terminated. But can you imagine what that would look like in a 115 other campuses where principals who may understand or know that their school facilities are not ready, because they're in them every day will not feel comfortable in saying, my school is not ready," because they may be fearful of being terminated.

  • 12:10:50

    NNAMDIWe're scheduling DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee to join us soon. So hopefully he'll respond to that. But, Debbie, in about the minute or so we have left in this segment, what are you hearing about the abrupt departure of that principal of D.C.'s School Without Walls?

  • 12:11:06

    TRUONGYeah. So Richard Trogisch had served at School Without Walls principal for about a decade. He was very popular at the school as you've heard. D.C. Public Schools has said that the was terminated -- or he left the school system because of a quote "school enrollment anomaly." They haven't elaborated on what that anomaly was. The Council of School Officers, which represents -- which is the union that represents principals said that the official reason that Principal Trogisch was given for his termination was a school lottery violation.

  • 12:11:41

    TRUONGBut the Council of School Officers also said that they feel like that was merely an excuse for Principal Trogisch pushing back on some of these plans for reopening and casting doubt on whether or not buildings were prepared to reopen. And as you've heard many in the community also share the same thought.

  • 12:11:59

    NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:35

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about schools in this region thinking about starting in-person instruction and whether or not that's a good idea. We're talking with Elizabeth Davis, the President of the Washington Teachers Union. And Debbie Truong who is WAMU's Education Reporter. D.C. since we were just talking -- I mean, Liz Davis, since we were just talking about a principal, are other unions like the principals and nurses unions on the same page with the Washington Teachers Union with regards to reopening?

  • 12:13:03

    DAVISKojo, yes they are. Not only the president of the nurse's union and the principal's union, but we also have the presidents of the unions representing custodians, the Teamsters and AFSCME, the union representing paraprofessionals because this issue of safety is priority for all of the unions. We don't want any of our members returning to facilities that are not COVID ready as specified by CDC and D.C. Health. And so this is an issue that is -- I want to -- in fact, can call it non-partisan. This safety issue is a priority for all of our members, for the principals, paraprofessionals, teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, but also for parents.

  • 12:13:56

    DAVISYou know, Principal Trogisch at School Without Walls was fired for raising concerns about the protocols that are being put in place and the lack of data around the air systems in his school buildings. This termination in essence signaled to other principals and teachers and other school workers that it is not a good idea to cite unsafe conditions existing in their schools counter to what the chancellor or the mayor is saying. This is not a good message to parents or teachers or the community, who want detailed assurances that the school facilities have instituted all of the safety protocols that CDC and D.C. Health and the Office of State Superintendent have recommended.

  • 12:14:38

    DAVISWe want a process -- in order for parents and other stakeholders to trust that these schools are going to be ready, we need for the process -- everything that's going to be in place, we need it to be very public. And we need for principals and teachers and others to feel comfortable about saying if it's not -- if those conditions, if those safety protocols have not been instituted they should feel comfortable in saying, "My school is not ready" without the threat of being terminated.

  • 12:15:07

    NNAMDIHere is Grace in Prince William County. Grace, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:10

    GRACEHi. I'm in Prince William County as you just said. And unfortunately I do very strongly feel as though we should be having in-person just because I'm currently working in a private school facility. We've been hosting children within the classroom doing virtual learning at our school while our other children are doing their in-person classes. And we have just seen such a decline in the children's behavior and the way they're interacting with their teachers as well as an added stress on the parents because they're paying for their kid to go to these virtual classes.

  • 12:15:39

    GRACEAnd to note, these parents that we usually cater to are -- have been first responders and emergency workers, so they really need a place for their kid to go. I just really feel like we do in-person, because it just feels like a necessity at this point. Thank you.

  • 12:15:53

    NNAMDIAnd you're talking from the point of view of a parent, Grace, or a teacher?

  • 12:15:58

    GRACENo. I am a teacher. I am the art teacher at the school. And so I do classes with these kids when they have a break. And I mean, and these breaks are insane. They're scheduled all over the place. They all don't run on the same schedule. They're from neighboring counties too. And it's really -- it's chaotic honestly.

  • 12:16:13

    NNAMDISo you're all for in-person learning.

  • 12:16:15

    GRACEI am unfortunately. And at the same time, I do say this with the caveat of knowing that I'm working at a nice private school where we have a very good facility and hand sanitizers and masks on hand, because we have that money and that ability. I do say that knowing that we have had that luxury.

  • 12:16:32

    NNAMDIWell, thank you very much. Debbie, Grace identifies as a teacher. But what are the positions of other teachers unions besides the Washington Teachers Union in this region? What are their positions on this?

  • 12:16:43

    TRUONGYeah, other teachers unions in the Washington region have expressed many of the same concerns as the Washington Teachers Union. The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which is one of two large teachers unions in Fairfax surveyed about 1300 of its members. They asked -- or about more than half of those who responded to that survey said that they weren't comfortable with the county's reopening plan, and said that they would consider resigning or taking a leave of absence if they were asked to teach in-person.

  • 12:17:19

    TRUONGI will also note, though, that I have spoken with some teachers who are not affiliated with unions necessarily, but who feel comfortable with returning to classrooms so long as there are things like social distancing and other safety measures put in place. About a dozen D.C. charter schools have been offering limited in-person instruction to small groups of students since the start of the school year. And I talked with a few teachers who are teaching those students and so far they feel comfortable enough with the safety precautions that the school system has taken.

  • 12:17:54


  • 12:17:55

    TRUONGOr that schools have taken, excuse me.

  • 12:17:57

    NNAMDIIn response to the last teacher who called in from Prince William County saying students need to be returning to school, we had a caller who couldn't stay on the line who said, "I've loved and listened to Kojo for 20 years and you used to always present both sides of the story. But this woman, just issued a press release on air." Liz Davis, whether or not some students return next month for in-person learning, the majority of students will continue online. So how has distance learning been going from the teacher's perspective in D.C.? Has it been successful?

  • 12:18:30

    DAVISKojo, just to let you know that our teachers' transition from brick in mortar teaching in March, when we closed schools in D.C. due to the pandemic and they did a very good job of doing so. They spent their entire spring break basically setting up their kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms as classrooms and they were flexible and adaptable enough to do that.

  • 12:18:56

    DAVISHowever, and I do appreciate the Prince William County teacher indicating that they saw a need to return to in-person teaching, as do we in D.C. However, we do want to -- we want to ensure that when teachers return to in-person teaching with whatever students are designated to return first, that it's going to be done in a manner that is going to protect students, their families and teachers from community spread.

  • 12:19:29

    DAVISSo we want to also look at what we're doing, whether or not it is going to contribute or facilitate community spread or whether or not we're going to do -- take every necessary precaution to ensure that our students and teachers and other school workers are going to be safe. What I don't want is for anyone to assume that any educator whether they are in Fairfax County or PG County or D.C., do not want to return as soon as possible to in-person teaching.

  • 12:20:00

    DAVISOur teachers are the first to understand there is no substitute for in-person teaching, none. Virtual learning, distance learning never will substitute. But they cannot deviate from the notion that it is imperative that we protect our students and teachers. And whatever plans we have for returning to in-person teaching -- our chancellor has done an amazing job of identifying students that need to return as quickly as possible.

  • 12:20:29

    DAVISWhat they have not done -- they have not collaborated with the union and teachers in determining how are we going to provide the options to our teachers who are actually some of best teachers, many of them, have underlying health conditions and cannot return to in-person teaching right away. How do we give them flexibility -- provide flexibility and allowing them to opt in to distance learning while at the same time arranging for those teachers who are able to return to in-person teaching.

  • 12:21:05

    DAVISAnd my bottom line is this, Kojo. We've got to collaborate. The D.C. city schools, the mayor, the chancellor, we've got to collaborate in how this is going to be done effectively in a way that is going to safeguard students, teachers and the community. And ensuring that whatever our plan is for returning to in-person teaching that is going to be done in a manner that is going to -- that's going to accommodate teachers, who are diligent, who are passionate about teaching. But basically who are not being sent the message that if you want to continue teaching, you're going to have to do it in-person or else. No.

  • 12:21:49


  • 12:21:50

    DAVISWe want those teachers who have been doing distance learning -- for the entire remainder of the last school year and did an amazing job.

  • 12:21:58


  • 12:21:59

    DAVISWe want to continue to provide the supports they need in order to do that. But at the same time we are calling on all of our other stakeholders, parents and community leaders to ensure that if we reopen for in-person teaching and when we reopen and we all want to do that, that it is going to be in a way that is going to ensure that our students and our teachers and other school workers are going to do it safely.

  • 12:22:22

    NNAMDIOkay. Just about out of time. Here we got a tweet from Kathlynn Couflen who says, "I'm DCPS teacher and I do not feel safe returning to the building. Another of my big concerns about the plan is how ESL and SPED students will receive their services in the in-person setting if they're isolated with just one teacher. Almost no teachers are certified." Got to take a short break. Liz Davis and Debbie Truong, thank you both for joining us. When we come back it's Kojo for Kids with Musician and PBS Kids Host Steve Songs. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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