On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
On November 9th D.C. Public Schools will begin the return of 21,000 students for in-person instruction. Students will have the option to go to school or remain virtual. Teachers, however, do not have an option about returning, and the Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) has concerns.
Last week WTU’s President, Elizabeth Davis joined the program and had this to say: “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 … The plan put forward by Mayor Bowser will disrupt learning and it basically fails to put the health of our students first.”
D.C. Public Schools’ Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee will join us to detail DCPS’s plan for a safe return.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in Kojo, welcome. Later in the hour we'll look at how excess salt maybe more harmful than fat or sugar. But first there are school districts in our area that have begun or will soon begin some in-person instruction. D.C. Public Schools is one of those districts. Their plan is to start returning 21,000 students on November 9th.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSWe spoke to Washington Teachers Union President Liz Davis last week. And she says she remains unsatisfied with officials' plans for safely reopening. So should student be returning to school? And what are D.C. officials doing to make sure schools will be safe? Joining me now to discuss is Debbie Truong. She is WAMU's Education Reporter. Hi, Debbie.
DEBBIE TRUONGHi, Sasha-Ann.
SIMONSAnd Dr. Lewis Ferebee is with us. He is the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Hi, Dr. Ferebee.
LEWIS FEREBEEHello. Good afternoon.
SIMONSDr. Ferebee, I'm going to start with you because earlier today we actually learned that the Public Employees Relations Board hearing examiner ruled that D.C. Public Schools violated the law by not bargaining with the Washington Teachers Union regarding reopening planning. And they ordered that DCPS bargain with the union over health and safety matters as they relate to reopening within five days. So what will DCPS do in response to that ruling?
FEREBEEYes, so PERB did grant a preliminary relieve to the Washington Teachers Union. As part of that relief, DCPS will rescind its prior communication to union members regarding returning to classroom. DCPS will also continue to address the PERB decision.
FEREBEEWe have continued discussions with the Washington Teachers Union. For example, we are meeting today. We met yesterday and we met all throughout last week and have been in discussions with the Washington Teachers Union since July. And we are very close to what I believe will be an agreement that we both feel comfortable with in terms of how we will reopen school. But the fact of the matter is we know that our most vulnerable students are students furthest from opportunity are best served in the classroom. And we stand firm by that belief and the commitment to get them into our buildings beginning November term two on November 9th.
SIMONSAnd so you mentioned PERB. I want to make sure folks know that that stand for the Public Employees Relations Board. Debbie, you've been following this closely, of course. What are your thoughts about the ruling and the implications?
TRUONGYeah, so one thing that struck me is that in September D.C. Public Schools sent a form to teachers asking if they wanted to return to in-person teaching or if they wanted to stay in the virtual classroom. DCPS said it would use the responses on those forms to determine staffing for schools as they reopen. And as part of the ruling by the Public Employee Relations Board, DCPS must rescind that form. It raises the question if the responses on those forms can be used to staff schools in November. The Washington Teachers Union believes that D.C. Public Schools cannot move forward with its staffing plans based on responses to that survey, but I would curious to hear Chancellor Ferebee's interpretation of the ruling.
SIMONSWhat do you think, Chancellor?
FEREBEEYeah. We're still evaluating that. Ultimately, the ruling does encourage DCPS and the Washington Teachers Union to reach an agreement on reopening, which I believe is the ultimate goal. And President Davis and I both have said that we believe it's important to have that agreement in place. And it's important that we get our students and staff back in the school. And we do it by ensuring that there are robust health and safety protocols.
FEREBEESo I am confident and optimistic that we can get there. And we've agreed to many terms thus far. For example, we've reached agreement around health and safety measures related to PPE, which is protective equipment such as face covering. We reached agreement on how we will utilize medical health professionals to be assigned to schools. We've agreed on our response to training and awareness. And we've agreed on accountability for our HVAC systems. And we've also established some terms around testing and how that will be made available to DCPS staff. And so there's a lot that I could point to where we're in agreement.
FEREBEEThere are a few issues that are unresolved. For example, there's a request for N95 masks, which are very hard to come by. And our communication has been that those types of masks are exclusive to healthcare professionals at this point. And then there's this open question around, who is participating in walkthroughs in the buildings and then ultimately, who has authority on determining if a school building is ready for reopening. So we've reached an agreement that we should have, you know, community members and staff be a part of our walkthrough readiness procedure.
FEREBEEBut I think there's still an open question and debate around, you know, what happens and who has authority to make the decision where a building is reopen or not. And we believe that should be the responsibility of our employees.
SIMONSWell, let's check a tweet here. We got a tweet from Kayla Ramsey. She's a DCPS math teacher and she says, "D.C. Public Schools released its reopen strong plan and nowhere does it talk about the critical need for COVID testing of all returning staff and students. This makes us one of the only major school districts without a testing plan and unnecessarily puts our children and frontline school staff at risk." How do you respond to that, Chancellor?
FEREBEEYes, so as I mentioned earlier we have reached agreement on some terms around testing. It's important to note however that the CDC and D.C. Health has not recommended testing for entry. In fact, there's clear evidence that testing for entry -- meaning you test to come to work or come to school has no significant advantage over our other mitigating strategies. And so we are confident in our other mitigating strategies such as cohorting student, the social distancing and the screening and temperature checks. All that we will utilize.
FEREBEEWe are still in discussions about surveillance testing. Some school districts are doing surveillance testing in that you periodically test either staff or students on a regular basis. I think the research is still limited on effects of that. However it's something we're exploring. And we've made available and we'll continue to make available testing the staff regularly.
FEREBEEI think it is another question as it relates to students and the guidance that we received is that we should prioritize staff and then consider students for any type of surveillance testing. We also have the ability to administer rapid tests within school buildings for any symptomatic student or employee. And all other testing will be for asymptomatic individuals.
SIMONSDebbie, do you know about testing in other school districts in the region at this point?
TRUONGNot at this point. But, you know, New York City Public Schools, which has the largest school system in the country, has brought back some students into the classroom, and they're randomly testing students. So that's one approach that one large school system has taken in terms of testing students and staff.
SIMONSChancellor, what are you hearing from parents at this point?
FEREBEEIt's interesting -- we're hearing from parents. One, if they're not comfortable with their child returning to school and their preference is to continue remote learning, that they don't want anybody else to return to school either. But we're also hearing from families who have work responsibilities who are not able to engage in the way that they would like to with learning at home. And the reality is that learning at home does require more engagement from, you know, the caregiver or the adult or guardian at home. And many of our families are just not able to provide that level of engagement and oversight.
FEREBEEAnd so we do worry that there's opportunity to see significant learning loss. And we know we have known opportunity gaps. So we decided to prioritize groups of students based on known opportunity gaps, which includes students who are younger in age, students, who are experiencing homelessness, students who are language learners or receiving special education services and then designated at risk. And we believe those are the right populations to target based on the feedback that we're hearing from families.
SIMONSI mean, it's clear you're in a tough position, you know, with D.C. Public Schools. This is not at all an easy thing to weigh. But I do want to talk about the timing of all of this, because Mayor Bowser continued the COVID-19 state of emergency through the end of this year and cases are going in the wrong direction here in the D.C. region. So why does DCPS think that it's the right time to return to in-person instruction?
FEREBEEYeah, so for D.C. it's important to note that we still have maintained a steady two percent positivity rate, which is relatively low compared to other jurisdictions and numbers we see nationally. We believe that's a strong indication that our residents have done the hard work with our health and safety protocols to ensure that schools can reopen. And as long as we continue on that path the expectation is that we continue on with our firm commitment ensuring that our most vulnerable students have the best learning experience. And we believe that experience will be in a classroom.
SIMONSLet's take a call. We've got -- Nahomi is on the line. She's calling from Washington. Hi, Nahomi.
NAHOMIGood afternoon. I am wondering, Chancellor Ferebee, I've heard you say several times that students who are furthest from need are best served by in class instruction. And I'm just wondering, what data do you have that supports that position?
SIMONSThanks for your question, Nahomi.
FEREBEEYeah, so I can give you one example that comes to mind. So we spoke about students receiving special education services. There are services related providers that are not able to provide remotely. So they are, you know, physical therapy that students receive, other services that students receive that we can't do remotely. And we actually need to provide an in-person experience for those students.
FEREBEEFor students who are not reading on grade level, the ability to have intensive language and literacy instruction is limited especially for our youngest learners in our remote posture. And we also have data that indicates that the attention span and the ability to connect with our youngest learners, who are age three, four and five is very difficult to do in a remote learning posture. And the best experience for them is to have that instruction in a live manner in our classrooms.
SIMONSWell, we'll take a pause here. And I just want to read tweet here from Judy who is reaching out to us from Potomac. She says, "This conversation is not just about students going back to school. It's also about staff and teachers returning. Staff members are risking a lot by returning to the classroom." So we'll pick that conversation up when we return. There's lots more to talk about. We'll continue the conversation after a short break. Stay with us.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Debbie Truong -- she is WAMU's Education Reporter -- and Dr. Lewis Ferebee who is the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and talking about the district's plans to bring some students back to school next month. Debbie, I wanted to get back to you and talk a bit more about the rest of the region because D.C. Public Schools aren't the only ones that area dealing with these questions. Can you tell us what other schools districts are planning as far as bringing kids back for in-person instructions?
TRUONGSure. So several schools systems in Northern Virginia including those in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties have either started bringing back students in small groups or will do so in the coming weeks. In Fairfax, schools have already brought back small groups of students who have disabilities and English language learners as well as high school students who are enrolled in career and technical education, which requires more hands on instruction a lot of the times. Fairfax also plans to start bringing back students in second grade and below by the end of November. They're still working through plans to bring back older elementary school students and middle and high school students, but those students could be back as early as January of next year.
SIMONSAnd, Debbie, you've talked to a lot of D.C. teachers and parents in your reporting. What are they saying? Are they split? Are there some that really wanting their kids to get back to the classroom?
TRUONGYeah. I mean, you know, certainly there are some parents who really strongly want in-person learning. Virtual learning can be extraordinarily difficult for some students who require a lot of special instruction as well as young students who have a hard time or who may have a hard time staring at a screen for several hours. But, you know, many other teachers believe strongly that, you know, deciding whether or not to return to in-person teaching is a life and death decision. You know, either they have underlying health conditions or they live with people who do, and so they're making those sorts of calculations.
TRUONGI've also talked with teachers unions in Washington D.C. and Fairfax. And, you know, some teachers are even going as far as considering taking a leave of absence or resigning or leaving the school system if schools do reopen and they have the ability to do that.
SIMONSDr. Ferebee, here's a tweet from Sandra. She says, "Parents aren't being heard. We support teachers. Please ask about plans to pull staff from secondary schools to support elementary cares classes. It has taken all school year to create a semblance of normalcy. And now D.C. Public Schools will destabilize it." Your response.
FEREBEEYes, I want to go back to what's happening in the region. In D.C. we have been operating what we call student support centers since October, which are small cohorts of students in our buildings that can receive academic support, social moral supports and also career and technical education programing. As it relates to staff, we have a very generous staffing plan that goes beyond the federally protected leave and federal local accommodations to support staff with flexibility to prevent risk or harm. So that includes considering conditions in the household, who you're caring for, if there are any preexisting conditions, the age of an employee, and so we've been very considerate and generous as we thought about our staffing plans.
FEREBEEAs it relates to the secondary schools, we have asked our secondary principals to collaborate with us to identify staff members that could support us in providing in-person learning experiences for students in elementary grades. This does not include teachers, who are giving direct instruction to secondary students. This includes support staff in our secondary schools. And we believe that we could do that without disrupting the learning that's taking place with our secondary students.
SIMONSWell, as I mentioned, Washington Teachers Union President Liz Davis joined us last week. And she had this to say when asked what D.C. teachers think about the plan to bring back over 20,000 kids next month.
LIZ DAVISI 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. The plan put forward by Mayor Bowser will disrupt learning. And it basically fails to put the health of our students first.
SIMONSDr. Ferebee, you know, as a mom of two school age children here in the D.C. region, I do have to say those sound like very valid concerns. And I know you've talked about some of the talks that have been happening behind the scenes. But what else do you have to say right now for parents feeling similarly to what she mentioned.
FEREBEEYeah, I'd say one, you know, we talked a lot about, you know, parents and guardians who have fears and are not ready for in-person experiences. And I want to be clear that families will always for the foreseeable future have the right to choose remote learning. But the reality is there's another group of parents out there who are experiencing great challenge and difficulty with the status quo of remote learning. And I firmly believe that we need to be and have been continue to be committed to addressing that need especially for our students furthest from opportunity.
FEREBEEI am confident that we can do that in a safe way. We will be very transparent about our buildings and our health and safety protocols. We have developed a school readiness checklist that will be made available to the public. And we will be hosting walkthroughs so individuals can come in the building and see the work that we've done for our readiness checklist. And see the health and safety commitments reflected throughout the building.
FEREBEEA great example of that is our HVAC systems that are being updated. We have the fortune of having an expert support us with that work. DCPS has been very fortunate that we actually have had an engineer from the American Society of Heating and Refrigerating Air Conditioner to be a part of our efforts to inspect all of the HVAC work, which includes mobile units that provide ultraviolet light. Also in addition to that, the highest form of filterization and ventilation that can occur in the classroom space, which is unique to DCPS. Again, I believe we've done our due diligence on the health and safety protocols that we've established.
SIMONSNora Gallel, a Ward 4 parent of a high school student emailed us and says, "It's hard to have faith in the DCPS decisions when a beloved outspoken principal, Richard Trogisch, getting fired for raising objections to reopening the elementary school Francis-Stevens. The process of shutting down an unwelcome opinion like this undermines the trust I might have in DCPS." A lot of folks wondering why he left so abruptly from the School without Walls, Dr. Ferebee, right before in-person learning was about to begin in his school.
FEREBEEYeah. Just to be clear, you know, that situation is not related to individual raising concerns around health and safety protocols. That's just not true and accurate. And we have had many conversations with our principals and given much space for principals to raise concerns or give us critical feedback. And those principals are still serving in their capacity. And those types of conversations are welcome and will continue.
SIMONSDebbie, are you hearing anything else on the ground about the abrupt departure of that principal?
TRUONGYeah, sure. So when I talked with D.C. Public Schools about this they said that his departure was related to a quote "school enrollment anomaly." The school system didn't elaborate further on that. But, you know, I've talked with community members at Francis-Stevens as well as the union that represents principals and, you know, people in the community believe strongly that Principal Trogisch was fired in retaliation for raising concerns about the conditions of buildings before reopening. And the Council of School Officers said that Principal Trogisch plans on filing a formal complaint protesting the firing.
SIMONSWe've got just a few seconds to go. Dr. Ferebee, I'm wondering, you know, if you return students to school next month, tell me quickly, you know, what's the criteria that you're going to be looking for in order to shut down again especially if cases continue to rise? Is there a certain number of COVID cases have to pass in order to close?
FEREBEESo that will be driven by the information and the data points that we receive from D.C. Health and their guidance. And they have shared with us that the same metrics and indicators that they utilize to monitor our status and the phase of city operations that we're in are the same indicators and measures that would drive any decisions associated with school operations.
SIMONSThanks Dr. Ferebee. Debbie Truong is WAMU's Education Reporter. Appreciate both of your time. You're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons. We'll be back.
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