What are local schools doing to ensure a safe return for students?

What are local schools doing to ensure a safe return for students?

Just two days into his tenure, President Joe Biden signed an executive order, putting the power of the federal government behind the effort to reopen schools.

In D.C., thousands of public school students and teachers are expected to return for a partial reopening next week, and across the region, some schools are planning to bring students back for in-person instruction as soon as March. But, given current community spread and the threat of new viral variants, many still worry that schools simply won’t be safe for children, teachers or staff.

So, how are local schools working to ensure safety protocols are put in place, and followed, once students return?

We discuss reopening plans with Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis and WAMU Education Reporter Debbie Truong.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock



  • 12:00:15

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. In D.C., thousands of public school students and teachers are expected to return Monday for a partial reopening, including some hybrid classes. And across the region, officials like the governors of Maryland and Virginia, are urging school districts to get all kids back into the classroom. But given current community spread and the threat of new viral variants, many still worry that schools simply won't be safe for children, teachers or staff. So, how are local schools working to ensure safety protocols are put in place and followed once students return? And how long will it take for all teachers to get vaccinated? Later in the broadcast, we'll be hearing from Elizabeth Davis, who is President of the Washington Teachers Union. Joining us now is Lewis Ferebee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Chancellor Ferebee, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:01:09

    LEWIS FEREBEEThank you, Kojo. I appreciate you having me.

  • 12:01:13

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you for joining us. Feel free to jump in with questions of your own at any time.

  • 12:01:22

    DEBBIE TRUONGThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:01:23

    NNAMDILewis Ferebee, local officials are not the only ones pushing for reopening. President Joe Biden says he'll throw the strength of the federal government behind the effort to reopen schools as soon as possible. But, at this moment, we're seeing a rampant community spread, and we're also seeing new variants of the virus that we don't know much about yet. So, how did D.C. Public Schools decide on a partial reopening starting next week?

  • 12:01:51

    FEREBEEYeah. So, over the past few months, our school teams have worked diligently to prepare our school buildings to welcome students back, with a focus on developing school plans that are very unique and tailored to the needs of that particular school community through our reopening community core teams and then our health and safety commitments. I believe you mentioned it. It was referenced at the opening that the preponderance of data available and the evidence suggests that we hear from the CDC, we also hear from the American Association of Pediatrics, that there's been little evidence that schools have meaningfully contributed to community transmission. So, we know that science is available for us to refer to, but more importantly, we have our health and safety commitments. And it's reflected in what we hear from President Biden in the White House in that it's important to have testing protocols.

  • 12:02:48

    FEREBEEDCPS has asymptomatic and symptomic testing protocols. It's important to have PPE, which we have provided to our schools. And it's also important, as you can, to provide students with technology and connectivity needed to continue remote learning for those students who choose that path. And we're offering that option to families. So, we believe that we're well aligned with what's in the science, and also what's been proposed by our leadership for the nation.

  • 12:03:21

    NNAMDIBut some teachers and advocates are concerned that returning staff will not receive both vaccinations in time. Some are only getting their first dose this week. Is everyone who's returning to school grounds being vaccinated?

  • 12:03:34

    FEREBEEYeah, so we made the vaccine available to everyone that is working in person. And we're really pleased that they started on it last night with a successful first-day launch, with over 450 doses administered last night. And then we have more dates this week, on the 28th and 29th, and then all day on Saturday the 30th. We have approximately 3,840 doses available to staff that are working in person.

  • 12:04:08

    NNAMDIBut those vaccine doses must be delivered a month apart. And for some who have yet to receive their second vaccination, school still, nevertheless, starts next Monday. Why not just wait until all teachers have received both doses of the vaccine?

  • 12:04:24

    FEREBEESo, Kojo, we've been utilizing a layered approach to our health and safety commitment. And so, this is one layer, but it is not a prerequisite for us reopening, and it never has been, in our planning. So, while we're excited to administer the vaccine to those that have volunteered and signed up to receive it, it is not a requirement for us to open schools. And we will continue to rely on our other layers that have aligned to science and proven to be effective, which includes, you know, cohorting students, ensuring that we have proper social distancing, ensuring that there are symptom checks each day in the morning, and then, of course, the testing protocols that I mentioned earlier. And then we've invested millions of dollars in our HVAC enhancement. And we have a medical-grade mobile unit in each classroom space that utilizes ultraviolet light and top-of-the-line filterization for a classroom space in mitigating the transmission of COVID-19.

  • 12:05:32

    FEREBEESo, we believe we've done a lot of great work, and our buildings are ready to receive students. And we're planning accordingly for February 1st, on Monday.

  • 12:05:42

    NNAMDIAllow me to be more specific. Are teachers who have not received vaccinations going to nevertheless be required mandatorily to return to classrooms?

  • 12:05:56

    FEREBEESo, I want to be clear that the time period between the first dose and the second dose is about three weeks. So, it's not a month. And, again, that's not a requirement for staff or a requirement for our reopening plans. It is another layer of protection that we're excited about. We also have a selection process based on each school plan and how we identify staff that will work in person. And once you're identified, then you become available for the vaccine.

  • 12:06:31

    NNAMDIHow was input from students, parents, teachers and school staff factored into this plan to return?

  • 12:06:39

    FEREBEEYeah, I'm glad you asked that. So, I want to go back to the reopening community core teams that I mentioned earlier. Each school has a team of about 12 to 15 diverse voices, which could include students, staff, parents, community members that help guide the planning for schools in their reopening plan. And many of the plans look different from school to school, but ultimately reflect what's needed in terms of their student population. So, for example, some schools are focusing a lot on social emotional development at the secondary level. We see two cohorts of students -- or two teachers, in some cases -- or AM and PM rotation, or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday rotation. So, some are utilizing technology to have the same teacher teach both students remotely and in person.

  • 12:07:39

    FEREBEESo, there's a wide range of options. And schools had the opportunity to go through a very vigorous planning process with their school communities, and we're glad that our very grassroots approach was applied, and many voices are represented in the plans that schools will implementing, starting next week.

  • 12:07:57

    NNAMDIThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said with proper precautions in place, there is scant transmission of the coronavirus in schools. And you have described for us what you see a safe school experience looking like during the pandemic. You've told us about some of the protocols that have been put in place to ensure the students and teachers and staff do not become infected with the virus. But here is Brenna in Arlington, D.C. Brenna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:28

    BRENNAOh, hi. Yeah, I just wanted to mention that while the CDC has said that with safety precautions in place, it is safe to return to schools, I'm not sure that we've met all of those precautions in at least the area where I teach, which is Virginia. Because according to the CDC, restaurants should be closed or restricted. We have bars open where I am. We would need to have robust contact tracing, which I'm not sure is happening. And I don't know that every school has evaluated their ventilation systems and been completely transparent with the community about, you know, the degree to which that is safe. So, to me I feel like the headlines about this are a little bit misleading when it's saying that we can reopen schools safely, when we know that a lot of the requirements just aren't being met.

  • 12:09:21

    NNAMDICare to respond to that, Chancellor Ferebee?

  • 12:09:22

    FEREBEEYeah. Thank you, Brenna. I think you raise some important questions. I can speak directly for D.C. and DCPS. We have had an expert engineer evaluate all of our HVAC systems, and we've made reports available of the work that has been done to enhance our HVAC systems. And we've done that as transparently as possible. And we have, also, very robust contract tracing if there's ever, you know, a positive case in a school environment. And we also report that information transparently, as well. So, I think what we see here in the District specific to DCPS is that we are very tightly aligned to the health and safety measures that are being promoted and discussed among the CDC, the American Association of Pediatrics and, of course, from the White House and Biden administration.

  • 12:10:23

    NNAMDIJohnny, in Arlington, has a slightly different view. Johnny, your turn.

  • 12:10:29

    JOHNNYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I strongly believe that CO2 meters and benchmarks for the CO2 meters will be really important for opening schools. And what a CO2 meter does is it measures the amount of exhaled breath in the room, and it gives you a way to quantify how much air is being exchanged with the fresh outdoor air.

  • 12:10:55

    NNAMDIChancellor Ferebee, will there be a use of CO2 meters in D.C. Public Schools?

  • 12:11:01

    FEREBEEYeah. I won't speak too much to the meters, because that's not my area of expertise. We are leaning on the expertise of our engineers, who are nationally recognized and nationally certified to lead this type of work. They were evaluating all of work that is happening in our building, as it relates to ventilation and filterization of air in the rooms and space. It's also important to note that we have a regular, ongoing monitoring of these systems and air quality. And there's also a regular cadence of our operation teams reviewing all of our health and safety protocols, to ensure that we maintain alignment in compliance with the standards we set for ourselves.

  • 12:11:56

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Kari, who says that, "As a parent of a seventh grader in Fairfax County Public Schools, I am confounded that I can drink wine at a winery maskless. I can go to a restaurant and eat indoors surrounded by maskless people. And yet our children can't return to school. Schools, teachers, counselors, social networks provide social, emotional and educational needs that screens cannot do. And for low-income kids who rely on schools to provide meals and more, it is heartbreaking." Cari has some more to say, but we don't have a great deal of time left in this segment. So, we're going to take a short break, and then come back to continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:10

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing schools reopening. Right now, we're talking with Lewis Ferebee, the Chancellor for D.C. Public Schools. Later, we'll be talking with Elizabeth Davis, the President of the Washington Teachers Union. Also joining us is Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Chancellor Ferebee, who is returning to school, exactly? It's my understanding this phase is opt-in. Parents can decide if they want their kids to return. Is that correct?

  • 12:13:39

    FEREBEEThat is correct. So, right now, the majority of the students participating in in-person programing, close to 90 percent represent the students that we prioritize, which includes students who are identified as at-risk, who are receiving special education or language learning services or experiencing homelessness.

  • 12:14:02


  • 12:14:03

    FEREBEEThose are the same groups of students that we'll prioritize in our prioritizing for term three. We currently have now approximately 5,000 elementary-age students who have accepted a seat, and that number continues to grow daily. We have approximately 2,000-plus high school and middle school students that have accepted a seat for in-person programming slated to start Monday. That number, again, is evolving. But what's important to note about those acceptances is that we prioritize those groups that I referenced earlier. And then schools are also identifying students who may need in-person programing based on their experiences either with attendance or engagement. And then we then offer seats to other families. So, the goal is to maximize as much of our in-person capacity as possible, but also prioritizing the groups that I referenced.

  • 12:15:01

    NNAMDIAnd how many teachers are being asked to come back?

  • 12:15:04

    FEREBEESo, that's a number that also has been moving as we have evolved. So, we have approximately 2,000-plus teachers that are slated to come back to the classroom. But, again, we also have other members of our Washington Teachers Union that we'll be supporting. And then we have also other support staff that have been and will continue to support in-person programming.

  • 12:15:37

    NNAMDIDebbie Truong, you were at Dunbar High School last night, as the first round of D.C. Public Schools staff were receiving their vaccinations. What did you hear from some of the people there?

  • 12:15:46

    TRUONGSure. So, yeah, about 500 staff members were scheduled to get their first dose of the vaccine last night, at Dunbar. The line was incredibly long. It stretched several blocks. And, you know, the teachers I spoke with -- I really shared a sort of sense of relief that, you know, with the vaccine, they feel a lot safer going back into classrooms. You know, at the same time, though, I've heard from educators who say that D.C. Public Schools is, you know, reopening too early. They should wait until -- you know, these teachers say that the school system should wait until teachers have had the opportunity to get both doses of the vaccine, and that doing so -- a reopening before that point is an unnecessary risk.

  • 12:16:31

    NNAMDIWhat are some of the bigger concerns you're hearing from teachers, students and parents about this partial return to school?

  • 12:16:38

    TRUONGSure. So, you know, some of the parents and teachers I've talked with have shared that they feel that there's -- they lack trust, essentially, in the school system and in its administrators. Teachers have shared that, you know, they've historically lacked supplies -- basic supplies for cleaning and for their classrooms, and they simply just don't feel or have a lot of faith that the school system will give them what they need to stay safe. I've also heard, more recently, concerns about, you know, the new variants of the coronavirus that are more transmissible. I think there is a lot of hesitance among families who are uncertain about what those variants mean and are going the safer route, or what they think is the safer route. And I also think like one really notable thing that I don't want to get lost in this is, that I've heard from parents who, you know, don't feel comfortable with sending their kids back to school buildings, like inside classrooms, but they want more opportunities for things like outdoor learning. Same families who are maybe reluctant to have their child sitting in a classroom for many hours in a day are much more open to outdoor learning opportunities.

  • 12:17:55

    NNAMDIIndeed. We got a tweet from Praia, who says: Will you proactively offer resources to schools for outdoor learning for better academic health and socio-emotional outcomes for kids and teachers? Dr. Ferebee?

  • 12:18:10

    FEREBEEYes. We're definitely open to providing resources. We have provided resources to schools that have expressed interest in outdoor activity and outdoor learning. There are some limitations, especially weather and the outdoor footprint for each school is very different. And given our urban structures around our campuses, sometimes that is not the best situation environment for outdoor learning. However, if the schools are interested in going down that path, we're happy to support them. But I want to go back to something Debbie mentioned about, you know, there's worry that a teacher or staff member may not have access to PPE or cleaning supplies. I want to be clear that that is a part of our readiness checklist. And myself -- I also go to schools and ensure that those materials are there.

  • 12:19:11

    FEREBEESo, each school has a very rich supply closet. There are sanitizing materials throughout the buildings, wipes in the classrooms. In fact, last night at Dunbar High School, I just did a walk through as I was waiting for the vaccine and watching the process last night. In every classroom that I went in, there was wipes, sanitizers, and all the disinfectant that a teacher or a staff member would need. So, I want to be really clear that those materials and resources are readily available.

  • 12:19:42

    NNAMDIYeah, but Dunbar is a prominent school in Northwest Washington. Some teachers, particularly those east of the river, have said they don't trust the District to meet those health and safety protocols in the schools in lower-income districts. What would you say to reassure them?

  • 12:19:58

    FEREBEEYeah. So, I would say the same as I did other schools. You know, I've seen evidence of that in Excel Academy. And I visited their campus. And Principal Prichard, I know, has everything that she needs, and has also (unintelligible) with her staff that they have all the resources, accordingly.

  • 12:20:22


  • 12:20:22

    FEREBEEWe do building readiness walkthroughs at all of our schools. I know this week we had several people -- for example, walk --

  • 12:20:35

    NNAMDIYou're breaking up on us. While we try to make sure we get the chancellor back. Here is an anonymous caller in Loudoun County. You're on the air. Please, go ahead.

  • 12:20:45

    ANONYMOUSHi, Kojo. I understand we have the state finance and safety issues that everybody is concerned about. But looking at it from a little bit different perspective, on Monday, Fairfax Hospital had nine admissions of teenagers for suicide attempt in one day. So, let that sink in, nine. All of Fairfax County as far as COVID had eight hospitalizations, that includes Reston Hospital, Ferris Hospital, Fairfax Hospital.

  • 12:21:18


  • 12:21:18

    ANONYMOUSI'm not saying that we're on equal footing. But how this isn't the crisis everybody is talking about is amazing. New York Times ran an article on the weekend about one school in Nevada that has now already had 18 suicides. We're losing the best and brightest of our teens, and not just to suicide. A lot of them are just checking out of school completely. If we had only half the kids agree to come back for hybrid, and only half of those came every other day, we'd end up with a class size of nine or 10. I think we can get teachers to be considered essential workers and make the conditions safe enough where they're all wearing masks. We can get some kids back in school.

  • 12:21:56

    NNAMDIChancellor Ferebee, did you hear that?

  • 12:22:00

    FEREBEECan you hear me?

  • 12:22:01

    NNAMDIYes, I can. We hear you. Go ahead, please. Oh, well, we're still testing with the chancellor. But here's a tweet from Dorothy, who says: Schools should not be forced to open until teachers and operational staff are safe. No matter what work has been done to the buildings, kids will hug the teachers. Well, I can say to the chancellor, kids will be kids. What is the plan, if any, for enforcement of social distancing and other safety measures for younger students in particular? If you're there, Chancellor Ferebee, you have about one minute.

  • 12:22:35


  • 12:22:39

    NNAMDIWe're still testing with Chancellor Ferebee. So, we're going to have to let him go, or keep him for a few minutes after we finish this break. But after the break, we'll definitely be talking with Elizabeth Davis, the President of the Washington Teachers Union. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:23

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing 2021 schools reopening. And when we took that last break, the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, Lewis Ferebee, was having -- we were having some technical problems. So, he didn't get a chance to respond to the last issue, nor did we get a chance to say goodbye to him. So, Chancellor Ferebee, can you hear me now?

  • 12:23:42

    FEREBEEI can hear you. Can you hear me?

  • 12:23:43

    NNAMDIYes, we can. Dorothy tweets: Schools should not be forced to be open until teachers and operational staff are safe. No matter what work has been done to the buildings, kids will hug the teachers and lunch ladies. Wait until we're all vaccinated. Chancellor Ferebee, kids will be kids. What is the plan for enforcement of social distancing and other safety measures, for younger students in particular?

  • 12:24:09

    NNAMDIUh-oh. I think we just lost the chancellor again. So, if you can still hear me, I can't hear you. Lewis Ferebee, thank you so much for joining us. Lewis Ferebee's the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Joining us now is Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teachers Union. Liz Davis, I hope you can hear me.

  • 12:24:27

    ELIZABETH DAVISYes, I can, Kojo. Good afternoon.

  • 12:24:29

    NNAMDIYes, and we hear you very well. For a start, generally, Liz Davis, how do you respond to the chancellor's comments?

  • 12:24:35

    DAVISWell, Kojo, I am delighted, of course, to hear that President Biden is putting more funds towards the safe reopening of our schools, and that returning teachers and other school workers will be able to receive the vaccine before they return. However, as you know, in December, Chancellor Ferebee and I signed a memorandum of agreement and a school readiness checklist to set the metrics and guidelines for safely returning teachers and students in February for in-person learning.

  • 12:25:04

    DAVISHowever, this agreement -- and this is going to basically assure parents and teachers and others that all reopening buildings would be safe for reopening. Last week, the WTU basically had to, you know, initiate some arbitration to get the responses, the data we need to ensure that HVAC systems have been repaired. We had hoped that the agreement would mean that DCPS would move forward in partnership with us, sharing data and information that parents and teachers are still asking in order to, you know, to ensure the safe return.

  • 12:25:35

    DAVISBut, you know, one of the issues that you raised during that interview was the issue of vaccines. We are being bombarded by teachers who are asking, why cannot we wait until the second vac dose has been, you know, administered to teachers and other school workers before we reopen? I'm not fully understanding why we could not wait. It would make a huge difference. And, of course, I was happy to hear the chancellor talk about the conditions of the facilities.

  • 12:26:04

    DAVISThe agreement was that WTU would receive data on parent demand to return to in-person learning. We've not received such data. Nor do we know how or why the individual school plans -- which were chosen by those community core teams that the chancellor mentioned -- have basically been ignored. So, the parents and teachers and other school workers who developed those plans, selected the options for how they wanted to do this, those options were pushed to the side and another decision was made.

  • 12:26:31

    DAVISSo, we still don't have detailed data on the facilities. This is a major issue, the repairs that have been done that Chancellor Ferebee has alluded to, to the HVAC system school by school, to ensure that the schools will have safe airflow and air quality. So, I was happy to hear the gentleman who raised the question about the CO2 meters, because that was one of the proposals we made for the school readiness checklist.

  • 12:26:56

    DAVISYou know, N95 masks, which are medical-grade masks for the healthcare workers in the schools, but also those teachers who will be working in very close proximity with very fragile students who are special needs students. So, you know, we have a very good memorandum of agreement. I had hoped that this would be -- would set the guidelines for how we reopen the schools, because it engaged teachers pre-K through 12 and every content area weighing in.

  • 12:27:23

    DAVISHowever, if the agreement is not adhered to, it is just a waste of time. And, at this time, we have over 17 violations, noncompliance violations with the agreement that Chancellor Ferebee and I signed in December. That's disturbing for me.

  • 12:27:41

    NNAMDIYou've also said that you fear the chancellor's asking more teachers to return than necessary. What makes you think that?

  • 12:27:48

    DAVISBecause we have not been able to receive from Chancellor Ferebee what the family demand is school by school. That's not a hard ask. If we have a school with 25 families or students returning, there's no need to return 25 percent of our teachers. We don't want to disrupt the distance learning that is working so well for some students, you know, by pulling those teachers.

  • 12:28:13

    DAVISFamily demand is really what's supposed to be driving the reopening plans in each school. But if you have a low family demand, especially in schools -- you mentioned west of the park, east of the river, what I've noted, we've been tracking the number of families that trust the reopening plans more so than others.

  • 12:28:30

    DAVISAnd those schools in Wards 7 and 8, we see a high percentage of parents who are hesitant about sending their kids back, because they know that many of the facilities in those two wards have not been modernized. They have faulty ventilation systems, and they have been under-resourced for decades. So, they have reason to be concerned about whether or not DCPS is going to deliver on those things that they promise to put in place, the safety metrics and the safety protocols.

  • 12:28:54

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Reg, who asked: Will the administrative staff and janitors get the vaccines before the schools open, like the teachers are supposed to? Do you know, Liz?

  • 12:29:03

    DAVISI asked that question of the chancellor. It makes sense that any staff member working in every school should be able to receive that vaccine. If only the teachers -- and, of course, I was assured that all school workers who will be reporting to buildings will be able to get the vaccine.

  • 12:29:19

    NNAMDIAnd here is Melissa, who self-identifies as a DCPS teacher. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:29:26

    MELISSAHi. My name is Melissa, and I am a DCPS teacher. And I actually am just coming from -- going into the building this morning for the first time for the school year. And I just kind of wanted to express some of the concerns that I saw and some brief -- and what I would consider some of the safety protocols. Some of it being that I saw multiple people not following mask guidelines. Some of our restrooms were not having running water or the proper equipment, key cards not working, no streamlined entrance into the building.

  • 12:29:56

    MELISSAAnd I am a person who has been called to return. And I guess, at this point, I guess, what advice do you have for teachers who are noticing violations and maybe don't feel comfortable going to administration, but also don't feel comfortable being inside the building?

  • 12:30:10

    NNAMDILiz Davis?

  • 12:30:11

    DAVISGreat question, thank you. And, of course, when we created the school readiness checklist, we created a reporting form where parents, teachers will be able to submit any concerns, with photos, showing where safety protocols have not been met. So, I'm going to ask you to reach out to Joe Weyden at our office. And if you go on our website you will see the document for reporting all issues, all evidence of a noncompliance with the school readiness checklist.

  • 12:30:42

    DAVISWe need to have that information as soon as possible, because one of the items that we filed in the complaint for noncompliance is the fact that teachers and parents have not been provided evidence that all of those safety metrics have been put in place.

  • 12:30:56

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Liz Davis, this could end up being a year, likely two years, without consistent, in-person school. What effect might that have on kids today?

  • 12:31:08

    DAVISWell, Kojo, and I know that it's going to be devastating for all students, and more so for some of our most vulnerable students, especially those students in the at-risk categories, according to the council. These are the special education students, ELL students, homeless students, students who are far behind.

  • 12:31:25

    DAVISAnd, of course, our teachers are the first to acknowledge that it is imperative that we get students back to in-person teaching, as soon as possible, for lots of reasons: social and emotional engagement, social and emotional support and health. But priority number one must be to ensure that when these students return, that they're going to be safe, that the workers, the teachers and other staff who will be engaging with them will be safe.

  • 12:31:50

    DAVISWe can always recover loss of learning. We cannot recover loss of lives. So, safety has got to remain a priority in reopening. And it's far more than just having sanitizers and PPE. We're still working with the nurses union on getting the appropriate PPE for the nurses who will be assigned to each school. Although we have 115 campuses, we have about 85 nurses.

  • 12:32:13

    DAVISTherefore, in those schools without fulltime nurses, there will be something called health experts. We have no idea what that is, what it means, what would be the certification for these individuals. So, if we adhere to the agreement that we made as to how this should be done safely, that would be the first step. And some of the other issues that are coming up right now from teachers around the vaccine, and I'm happy that it is available. I was very disappointed to see teachers standing in line last night around the entire city block at Dunbar, waiting to get vaccines. And I'm happy to hear that there is a schedule for them to receive them.

  • 12:32:49

    DAVISBut a number of our members, who may or may not be called back to in-person, have already been denied a vaccine. And I do understand that those individuals who are returning for in-person should be given priority, but we have some teachers who are working remotely. Eventually, they will be returning. And to avoid this timeline that the CDC is calling for, the time span between the first and second dose, we can actually have a plan that will be able to vaccinate these individuals who will be returning for possibly the fourth term. But waiting until the last minute is not a good idea, because basically it's going to get us what we see happening right now.

  • 12:33:25

    NNAMDIHere's Ethan in Washington, D.C. Ethan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:33:31

    ETHANHi. Thank you. I'm the husband of a teacher, and one question for WTU, I suppose, would be why the union was willing to sign an agreement that did not include either vaccines or N95 masks? And perhaps the union could speak to this, or if we get Chancellor Ferebee back on the line.

  • 12:33:53

    ETHANThe refrain I hear is that it's important to get students back to class because we know they do better in school. But I don't think we have any information about how students perform in a classroom that's seating, you know, 10 students while the teacher is also teaching to 30 students virtually with masks on. Basically, we're not returning students to a pre-pandemic school. So, what type of performance in students are we expecting? I don't think it's pre-pandemic level. Thank you.

  • 12:34:25

    NNAMDILiz Davis?

  • 12:34:26

    DAVISEthan, you are absolutely, positively right. Reopening plans for returning the small groups of students is not a return to normalcy because, you're right, the teachers will be teaching virtually, as they are also instructing students in person. It's not a good plan. To answer your question about why we signed the safety readiness checklist and MOA, the safety readiness checklist had, in the very first category on the PPE, the N95 mask. That was deleted immediately by DCPS. The first response from the chancellor was, we cannot afford it. That is basically for healthcare workers. We totally disagree.

  • 12:35:02

    DAVISWe also had the CO2 meters, which one gentleman brought up earlier. So, in order to reach agreement -- because we don't want to be perceived as an obstructionist to getting kids back to in-person -- we were delighted to be able to at least have a readiness checklist that we developed, shared with DCPS, they adopted it, rather than have nothing. As far as the MOA, to include the vaccine as one of the criterias for reopening, we did not want to include that even -- you know, we wanted to. However, it was rejected. Just to answer that question.

  • 12:35:31

    DAVISAnd we wanted to reach agreement on that MOA and safety readiness checklist before February 1st. So, we had to basically make some concessions. We're working with the D.C. Nurses Association to ensure that the healthcare workers in those schools will have N95 masks, and we'll keep pushing on that. But we had to make some concessions in order to get that document finalized before February 1st.

  • 12:35:55

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from a listener, who asked: Have all schools passed that checklist that was agreed upon between DC Public Schools and the Washington Teachers Union?

  • 12:36:04

    DAVISThe answer to that question, Kojo, is no. And that is another reason why we have filed for expedited arbitration. We have the hearing tomorrow. That is one of the reasons. We've listed the number of schools that have reported that they did not pass the school readiness checklist, that all of the safety metrics were not adhered to, or that the school did not meet the safety metrics standards.

  • 12:36:24

    DAVISSo, the only way we can get a quick answer -- because we have tried to get this data from DCPS for months now -- is to basically go to a neutral third party, which is an arbitrator.

  • 12:36:35

    NNAMDIElizabeth Davis is president of the Washington Teachers Union. Liz Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:36:40

    DAVISThank you for inviting me. Have a good day.

  • 12:36:42

    NNAMDIWe're talking about schools reopening in this region. And still with us is Debbie Truong, WAMU's education reporter. Debbie, I'd like to shift for a moment, because D.C. is not the only jurisdiction grappling with these difficult decisions around schools reopening. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has called on the state's schools to return to hybrid learning no later than March 1st. How are Marylanders responding to the governor's remarks, and what are plans for Montgomery and Prince George's Counties?

  • 12:37:10

    TRUONGSure. I mean, so, you know, certainly there have been families across the D.C. region who, all along, have wanted to return to in-person instruction. The president of the Maryland State Education Association, which is the largest teachers union in Maryland, both wrote a letter to Hogan and the state school superintendent really sort of chastising state officials for what she sees as lack of support for local school systems in getting schools to safely reopen.

  • 12:37:41

    TRUONGShe also, you know, criticized the state for not distributing vaccines quickly enough. In Montgomery County Public Schools, there's a plan to partially reopen schools by March 15th. That date was pushed back from February 1st because of a rise of COVID-19 cases in the community. Prince George's County Public Schools have also considered the possibility of returning in the spring, if they feel conditions in the state are safe and ready for that. But they have not set out a specific plan or set a specific date for returning.

  • 12:38:21

    NNAMDIHere is Cindy in Montgomery County. Cindy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Cindy. Are you there?

  • 12:38:30

    CINDYHi. Hi. Sorry, Kojo. Yeah, so I was in class, so I didn't catch -- I was actually working with a student most of your show. I caught part of it. I just wanted to reiterate some of the points, especially of the gentleman, I think it was Ethan, who just spoke and said it will not be the same experience. I'm not sure parents really understand that. You know, teachers will be teaching online, and they'll be teaching the students in class.

  • 12:38:58

    CINDYSo, you know -- and it will not be -- so, basically, almost, the students will be online, but in the classroom. And, you know, again, we will be masked. So, I think parents should understand that it won't exactly be the same experience. And then logistics haven't totally been worked out. I know that, in my classroom, there are four windows, so we're talking about ventilation. There's always been issues with filters and air filters, you know, air quality, anyway.

  • 12:39:30

    CINDYAnd so, to go to the point of safety, there was a story on NPR, I'm not sure, was it yesterday, that said we should now be double-masking. So, we should be even more careful. So, the thought of going back when we're being told, you know, there's a variant that is more contagious, it just seems kind of counterintuitive to the way things should be working.

  • 12:39:54

    CINDYAnd the only other point that I wanted to make is, you know, again, going to the logistics of, you know, figuring out lunches and having this staffing, you know, for the students that do come back, because it has to be socially distanced. Recess, you know, using the bathroom only a few at a time, just having the enough staff to do this all safely, I don't think those questions have been fully addressed.

  • 12:40:18

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Cindy. Debbie, what about Virginia? Governor Ralph Northam also made a similar call for schools to reopen, so what are plans in Virginia school districts in our region?

  • 12:40:33

    TRUONGYeah, so Governor Northam did encourage school systems to reopen, and the state released new guidelines for localities that sort of describe, you know, safe conditions for reopening. Fairfax and Lowden Counties -- two of the largest school systems in Northern Virginia and our region -- had started actually bringing students back to in-person classes, you know, in the first half of the school year. They reverted to distance learning in mid-December, as hospitalizations and coronavirus cases rose. And right now, both of those school systems are mulling over plans to possibly return in mid-February, or partially return in mid-February.

  • 12:41:20

    NNAMDIWhat do the medical experts say, Debbie Truong? Can schools be reopened safely?

  • 12:41:26

    TRUONGSure. So, this was alluded to earlier in the hour, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study yesterday looking at data from schools that have reopened during the pandemic. You know, they found that the COVID-19, or the coronavirus, isn't being transmitted in any sort of widespread way inside school buildings, and that schools can safely reopen with precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing. The CDC also said, though, that local officials must be willing to limit other activities, like indoor dining and bars, to keep community infection rates low.

  • 12:42:05

    NNAMDIThe voices that are getting lost in all of this seem to be the students. What have you heard from young people that you have spoken with? Are they feeling ready to get back in the classroom?

  • 12:42:17

    TRUONGYeah. I mean, I think, you know, there's a desire for, you know, students and children to be with their friends. And they want that socialization, and they miss being in the physical classroom. You know, at the same time, I think, especially older students, middle and high school students understand the risks that the coronavirus poses.

  • 12:42:36

    TRUONGYou know, I talked with a student recently whose family -- entire family became sick with COVID-19. And she saw firsthand sort of how it affected them. And, you know, she said -- you know, she's a sophomore in high school, and she said that she would be willing to stay home for as long as is necessary to avoid having to experience that again.

  • 12:42:59

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Ann, who said: While I appreciate the fact that some schools and some groups may be able to return to school safely, there are high schools in Montgomery County with student populations over 3,000. Even with the hybrid schedule suggested in the past, you would still have over 1,000 students in hallways, etcetera, at once, making social distance impossible. I fail to see how it would be feasible to meet the CDC guidelines for returning to school safely. Debbie Truong, have you been hearing anything about those very large high schools with large populations of students, and that they'd still conceivably be fairly crowded if they reopen?

  • 12:43:43

    TRUONGThat's definitely a concern in some of these school buildings. Like, realistically, teachers are wondering how, you know, young children will be able to, you know, have the, I guess, mindset to socially distance. And having to perpetually remind them is going to be a struggle. Yeah, but there are, you know, space constraints, particularly in a lot of the larger suburban school districts that are already overcrowded.

  • 12:44:09

    NNAMDIHere is Miriam, in Chevy Chase. Miriam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:14

    MIRIAMHi. Thank you for taking my call. I teach at Montgomery College. I have a son at MCPS, in high school, which is one of the large high schools. And I just wonder why elected officials, parents and others assume that teachers don't want to be back in the classroom, face to face. Most of us really do not enjoy teaching over Zoom, and would much rather be working with our students face to face in the classroom. And so, it's kind of discouraging to hear everybody assuming that this is not something we want to do. We love being in the classroom.

  • 12:44:48

    NNAMDII'm pretty sure you love being in the classroom, but what, as you pointed out, you have a son who is in one of those very large high schools. What are your concerns, if any, about the ability to maintain social distancing in that environment?

  • 12:45:01

    MIRIAMOh, well, he goes to a school where there's 3,200 kids. There's no way it's going to -- they're not going to be able to social distance. There's too many of them.

  • 12:45:10

    NNAMDIBut you would still prefer for him to be in school.

  • 12:45:13

    MIRIAMI would -- to be honest, I don't know. I can't -- you know, it's hard to say. I think for high school students -- if people have to go back to school, I think for high school students, they do better on Zoom than, let's say, elementary school students. And those schools tend to be smaller.

  • 12:45:31

    MIRIAMMy point is mostly that I keep hearing people saying teachers don't want to go back to school and that we're putting up all these barricades. But I know from the people that I work with and other teachers that we would much rather be in the classroom. We just want to do it safely. And so, to automatically assume we don't want to be in the classroom and that we like teaching on Zoom is an incorrect assumption.

  • 12:45:56

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Let's hear from someone who works in Carroll County Public Schools. Here's Andrew. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:06

    ANDREWThank you so much. First of all, I just wanted to really give a shout out to all of the unions out there who are advocating for teachers. Because the unions and the teachers really have been, I think, vilified throughout all of this. And we just want to be safe and we want to create environments for our students who are safe. My concern is with the local boards of ed. (unintelligible) in Carroll County, we attempted to go back hybrid in November. And we were only -- for the high schoolers, we were only in hybrid for four days before we had to back all virtual.

  • 12:46:42

    ANDREWWe came back in January, and this is after Christmas and New Year. COVID numbers were just starting to come out. Our Health Department said we should not go back to school, and our Board of Ed said, well, thanks for that bit of information. Let's go back to school. And so, my concern is just, what kind of -- you know, what kind of oversight is there for boards of ed?

  • 12:47:06

    NNAMDI(overlapping) And on that -- and on that question we're going to have to end, because there's still a lot of questions. Debbie Truong, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:47:13

    TRUONGThank you.

  • 12:47:14

    NNAMDIDebbie is WAMU's education reporter. Today's show was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, throughout the pandemic, neighbors and support organizations stepped up their efforts to help those in need. In our latest Kojo in Your Community Neighbors Helping Neighbors, we speak with some leaders of nonprofits and the local volunteer who has gone above and beyond. That all starts at noon, tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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