State Board of Education
August 18, 2021
I am Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent who finds it ironic that this hearing is being held virtually on the subject of kids soon returning to school in person.
If we are here virtually due to what the state board’s own website says is a “public health emergency,” it seems only fair to ask what we hope to achieve with in person learning during a public health emergency in which our city has thus far refused to mandate covid vaccinations and testing for all in all our schools.
I am sympathetic to parents who see their children (and/or themselves) unhappy and frustrated at home. I am also sympathetic to parents who fear vaccinations. But just as we know not all children learning from home are unhappy, frustrated, or not learning, we also know that children can, and do, get covid; get sick; and die of it.
Without much cost or effort, DC can do more to protect families:
DC can have vaccine mandates for all staff and eligible students. As someone who became very ill as a child with a vaccine-preventable illness, I fail to understand what public health benefits anyone thinks not mandating covid vaccination will achieve. Ditto for regular testing of all in all our schools, and uniform and robust quarantine protocols that do not depend on whether one was masked or not.
DC also can have a robust and widespread virtual option using the tools of the last 18 months and the information we have gleaned through that experience. In person learning is wonderful and great—but right now, we know it is not safe for everyone. [We have heard about in person learning from SY20-21 and this summer and the reporting of cases. What we have not heard are estimated and/or expected numbers of reported cases with all students back in person]
Indeed, the urgency here is acute, as in less than 2 weeks, in classes and hallways, DC will see more than 50 THOUSAND unvaccinated public school kids every single day in close proximity with untold numbers of unvaccinated staff. [Based on the audited enrollment from SY20-21 of DC public school kids from preK3 through grade 6, all of whom would be less than 12, the current threshold for vaccination].
That’s on top of what is happening right this minute, as DC has rising case loads, including kids. [DC is hardly alone in the rising cases: Over 4 days this past week, the United States saw more than 2400 deaths from covid—more than all US military deaths in Afghanistan.]
And all of that comes with a frightening context in DC, as we continue to have no clear safety mandates for all our publicly funded schools, including universal testing and vaccination. Whose freedom does that represent? [It represents the freedom of DC charter operators, who are exempted from following any testing protocol that DCPS follows. Indeed, a pandemic is a terrible time to come to terms with the fact that DC’s publicly funded schools have widely variable health and safety requirements, whether for sexual assault, lead in school water, or COVID. Some charters may institute regular, universal testing. But some may not. Some may elect to adopt weak sampling akin to what DCPS did in SY20-21, well below the goal of 10% (see the story here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-schools-covid-tests-audit/2021/08/16/ace31f76-febb-11eb-85f2-b871803f65e4_story.html). Dealing with covid isn’t a highly individual choice, like wallpaper or ice cream—it’s a public health emergency and needs to be treated that way everywhere, especially as families may have kids in both charters and DCPS.]
For instance, DCPS’s testing plan provides for only a small portion of unvaccinated students will be tested—and only those who opt in for testing. [The form that parents are required to fill out charmingly has a liability waiver for the city in case a child contracts covid. Who’s being protected here? See the form here]. It costs the same amount to have an opt-out-only form, which would ensure a greater participation rate. As it is, we know that vaccinated people can have covid and transmit it—so why limit testing to only the unvaccinated? [The point may be to limit the numbers of tested, to artificially ensure that reported positivity rates remain low, which is politically much more appealing than the alternative. This goes directly to what many conservative political leaders have stated: the more you test, the more cases you have. Of course, that’s sophistry, because the more you test, the more cases you KNOW you have—and the greater the political problems.]
There is also the reality that DCPS has struggled to have equitable conditions across its schools, whether with fully functioning HVAC and plumbing, windows that can open, warm water, and adequate supplies of soap, paper towels, and toilet paper.[Last night during a meeting of the Ward 6 public school parents’ organization, DCPS representative Bijan Verlin stated, in response to concerns about masses of kids eating together in a cafeteria, that schools “may” be allowed to have outdoor lunch. So what is it: charters can do whatever they want, while DCPS staff “may” protect their students if they determine it’s for the best? The reality is that DCPS schools have never been encouraged to be creative or free except in getting rid of beloved staff (the vaunted “flexibility” in the face of intractable budget cuts). There are many ways to ensure safety: cohorting; specials in classrooms via Teams; lunch in classrooms; specialized instruction in classrooms via Teams; staggered arrival and dismissal; no use of shared spaces like gyms and cafeterias; strategic hallway and bathroom use; limiting class sizes; limiting staff interacting with each cohort; developing a plan B for simulcasting and other, quarantine-based learning. Are any of these freely adoptable by any DCPS school? We literally have THOUSANDS of professionals in DCPS whose thoughts and experiences are rendered mute in this, less than 2 weeks away from school.]
I hope we can agree that all of these are basic, and necessary for safety, in a public health emergency.
I hope we also can agree that in this public health emergency, virtual instruction is not just a stopgap for a tiny number of kids with specific health conditions or an impediment to “real” learning, but a basic and necessary tool to safeguard DC students and teachers. [The mayor’s press conference around school re-opening underscored the degree to which DC political leaders are determined to have in person learning at ANY cost. For example, the mayor declined to answer a reporter who asked under what conditions she would re-evaluate in person learning. On p. 34 of the slide deck presented, an outline of quarantine procedures made clear that if a student’s quarantining is not for school, but for another reason, parents are required to provide a written note that “must include the date of COVID 19 exposure; the length of time the student has been directed to quarantine by a medical professional or contact tracer; and the name, organization, and contact information of the medical professional or contact tracer.” Not surprisingly, the same press conference noted that 150 families applied for a medical exemption in DCPS for virtual instruction–and 98 were granted it. That’s out of more than 50,000 students. Ensuring no virtual option for most no matter what, and presenting hurdles for quarantine, is not a path to safety—at least for the public.]
I hope that as the only directly elected education oversight body in DC, you agree with a clear path forward for DC school safety: universal vaccine and testing mandates; robust virtual instruction for all who want it; guidelines that apply to all DC’s publicly funded schools; and DCPS ensuring equitable physical conditions. Thank you.