Suzanne Wells Testimony – State Board of Education Public Hearing: School Reopening – August 18, 2021

State Board of Education

Public Hearing

School Reopening

August 18, 2021

            My name is Suzanne Wells, and I am the president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.  I want to thank the State Board of Education for holding this evening’s hearing on school reopening.

            Last night our organization held its monthly meeting, and we spent much of our time discussing concerns about school reopening.  While we had been hopeful for school reopening, the Delta variant has changed how we must approach reopening.  We know the Delta variant is more transmissible, that young children can become very sick or die from it, and that people who are vaccinated can become sick.

            Parents want their children to be back in school, but they want them to be safe.  Families spent the past year and a half being careful, and don’t want to take unnecessary risks when sending their children back to school.  While we appreciate the work DCPS has put into reopening schools, certain aspects of the plan do not appear to be driven by safety.  We listened to Mayor Bower’s situational briefing this morning, and were extremely disappointed by how little had changed in the plans to safely reopen DCPS.

            Virtual Option.  The greatest concerns are with parents who have children under the age of 12 who currently are not able to be vaccinated.  One parent of a young student said she didn’t feel comfortable sending her child back to school, and felt “boxed in” because there is only a virtual option for those who can get a medical exemption.

            Allowing more families of children under 12 to have a virtual option until they can be vaccinated would reduce the number of students in the school building and lower the risk of covid transmission.  I believe if the restrictions on a virtual option are lifted, most parents would support virtual instruction that is provided at a central level.  The Mayor’s briefing today did not expand virtual learning beyond medical exemptions, and even incorrectly implied that because they received a low number of medical exemptions that there was little interest in virtual learning.

            Lunch.  We all felt it was extremely low hanging fruit to change the current lunch plans.  The Mayor’s office wouldn’t host a banquet for a hundred adults right now so why risk students eating indoors in a cafeteria when there are many safer options available?  Students could eat outside where the risk of transmission is much lower.  Students could eat in their classroom with the same cohort of students they are spending most of their day with.  Parents who are able could pick their child up at lunch so they can eat at home. The Mayor’s briefing this morning pivoted slightly on students eating in the cafeteria, and said students could eat outdoors “where feasible. “  While we’re relieved eating in the cafeteria isn’t going to be mandated, we hope DCPS will go further to encourage school principals to actively pursue safer options. 

            Testing and Safety Protocols.  The current plan is woefully inadequate in its safety protocols.  The Mayor’s briefing today didn’t provide any enhanced testing and safety protocols.  Currently, there are plans to test only a percentage of students who opt-in for testing.  As others have said, “denominators matter.”  There should be a robust number of teachers, staff and students tested each week so covid cases can be quickly identified, and fully vaccinated people should be included in the testing.  The testing plans should be based on an opt-out policy.

            Given the close proximity most students will be in, it is recommended that the quarantine procedures be revised to include entire classrooms quarantining when a positive covid case is detected.

            Providing schools with high grade masks rather than the simple disposable masks they currently are given will also help reduce transmission.

            We understand we are all balancing risks.  The risks of keeping children out of a normal school situation versus the risk of a child or teacher or family member getting covid.  We must work to reopen schools safely within the bounds of what is possible.  Giving more families a virtual option is possible.  Eating lunch outdoors or in a classroom is possible.  Having more stringent testing and safety protocols is possible.  The Mayor clearly hasn’t listened to parents concerns about safely reopening.  We ask the SBOE to use its voice to help safely reopen schools.

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