Valerie Jablow Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

Valerie Jablow

Committee of the Whole

Public Roundtable on Re-Opening District of Columbia Public Schools and District of Columbia Public Charter Schools for School Year 2021-2022

September 21, 2021

I am Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent. As we struggle with the covid delta variant, which has led to increasing cases in our children and schools, I have compiled for you 15 action items to ensure our students and school staff are immediately much safer.[1]

For this compilation, I (and many others) owe a debt of gratitude to DCPS parents Sandra Moscoso, Grace Hu, Becky Reina, Mary Levy, and the (truly) grass roots, 100% parent- and educator-powered DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools.[2]

Sadly, absolutely none of these action items would be needed if the mayor, her deputies, and many DC elected and appointed officials had not prioritized in person learning in SY21-22 over everything else and hinged their actions and answers to questions (including yours at the 9/21/21 hearing) on falsehoods.

Since January, hundreds of parents, teachers, students, and elected officials have testified before you and the state board of education and written you and the mayor about the need for every publicly funded DC school in SY21-22 to have

–vaccine mandates for all students and staff;

–weekly testing for all students;

–robust virtual instruction for all who want it;

–covid guidelines that apply to all of DC’s publicly funded schools; and

–DCPS ensuring equitable physical conditions across its schools, with ample social distancing; fully functional HVAC; and plenty of outdoor space for both learning and eating.

Though we now have a November 1 vaccine mandate for school staff[3], it didn’t happen soon enough to keep an entire grade at Johnson Middle School safe, whose recent quarantine was a result of exposure to an unvaccinated (presumably covid-positive) staff member.[4]

As a healthy, vaccinated DCPS parent with a healthy, vaccinated DCPS student and no ill or immunocompromised household member, I am relatively lucky.

Maybe you and your families are, too.

But you did not permit me or anyone else to testify in person before you at the 9/21/21 hearing because you and I both know that we are not safe doing that.

Thus, I implore you to understand the gravity of what we are facing now in our schools:

Just as we know that 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.

With hundreds, possibly thousands, of student covid cases JUST in DCPS after only 3 weeks of school, and thousands of our students and staff going into, remaining in, or emerging from quarantine as you read this, the lives of our kids, their families, and their teachers hang in the balance right now.

Please, while there is still a chance: do the right things.

1. Make all DGS work orders for all our schools public.

There is a database—it is not public, and the persistent lag in work orders translates to unsafe school conditions.

2. Make sure DGS is held accountable for lagging work orders and dangerous HVAC conditions at the start of school in DCPS that persist to this very minute.[5]

Per DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools, all indoor spaces should have at least 5 air exchanges per hour.

3. Test all students each week in every school.

Testing protocols in DCPS are not meeting even the minimum the mayor stated on August 18 (10-20% of asymptomatic students weekly), with DCPS identifying only a small fraction of all reported covid cases in its students.[6]

That suggests a terrible public health failure, inasmuch as both robust testing and reporting are being done not by DCPS or any DC agency–but by DCPS parents. As it is, no one anywhere in DC government even knows what DC charters are doing except for the few that have revealed their strategy.

Testing is not rocket science. Per DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools, schools should test all students weekly with asymptomatic PCR; use rapid antigen testing for symptomatic students and staff; use a rapid antigen testing test-to-stay program to reduce quarantine; and ensure all PCR results are returned in 6-18 hours.[7]

4. Make all test results public for all publicly funded schools.

Per parent Sandra Moscoso, testing results should be made public for

# of staff asymptomatic tests conducted each week by school

# of staff positive results from asymptomatic tests by school

# of student symptomatic tests conducted each week by school

# of student positive results from symptomatic tests by school

# of student asymptomatic tests conducted each week by school

# of student positive results from asymptomatic tests by school

# of staff and # of student positive cases reported to DCPS (outside of symptomatic tests) by school[8]

Please do not say or allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that DC’s public reporting right now is accurate or fulsome—it is not. Every single public-facing DC government website with covid data shows different numbers; is lagging in time; and does not have every case, because DCPS itself is not testing widely, thus leaving reporting to parents.

(BTW, does anyone anywhere in DC have information on that list above? If not, why not? Students and families go across wards, across school sectors. If you say you value “school choice,” then you have to value this—unless the choice is actually not that of families, but of school operators.)

5. Employ more contact tracing in DCPS, and ensure that all charters have at least the minimum that DCPS has.

Our UNrobust tracing has ensured that the virus can spread unimpeded. Right now, DCPS employs 10 contact tracers for about 50,000 students. KIPP employs 6 for 7000 students.[9]

6. Ensure case notifications are updated more rapidly and disseminated to full school communities.

I was never informed by anyone at my school or at DCPS that there was a positive covid case at my child’s school—I got the news from my child and from checking the DCPS website of notifications (see here: https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/health/response/notifications/).

As it is, DCPS official case updates are wildly variable and often slow. Some school communities have been notified a week or more after a positive case was identified. That ensures only one thing: the further spread of the virus.[10]

7. Ensure all DCPS communities have the outdoor furniture and equipment needed to use outdoors spaces immediately and fully.

Right now, only a subset of DCPS schools has students eating outdoors, and it is unclear whether all schools will have assistance creating safe outdoor spaces.[11] All DC leaders have put this 100% on DCPS principals—which is neither fair nor helpful.

8. Make quarantine rules truly robust–and stop promulgating the myth that because someone is vaccinated they cannot get and transmit covid.

Right now in DC’s schools, CDC guidelines are being used as a ceiling, not as a floor.

That not only prevented a vaccinated sibling from quarantining when her sibling became infected, but also ensured that she was at school, possibly infecting others for days, before being diagnosed with covid herself.[12]

Per DC Families for Covid-Safer Schools, all classes sharing indoor space for more than 15 minutes should quarantine if anyone in the class tests positive. In addition, all students (as well as any children residing with them) in any class with a positive case should be tested immediately.

And if a sibling tests positive, every student in that household needs to quarantine at the same time, regardless of vaccination or test status. This sound guidance is used by a number of other jurisdictions.[13]

9. Ensure all students in quarantine or whose families have kept them home because they are unvaccinated or have family members who are immunosuppressed receive appropriate educational materials and support.

We have heard, repeatedly, that not all kids who are quarantined in DCPS are receiving fulsome educational materials, and no one really knows what is happening in our charters WRT quarantine education outreach (or, if they do, they’re certainly not making that information public).

Worse, DCPS has allegedly told teachers to not help families who are keeping their children at home for fear of covid—even when those families are using school materials obtained through teachers and their schools.

All of this amounts to denial of education.

10. Provide robust virtual options for students in quarantine and those whose families wish to keep (or are currently keeping) their students at home.

Literally no one has ever said in person learning is not desirable for the vast majority of students.

But since the start of school, we have been facing huge numbers of covid cases in DC, many among school-age children, while more than 50,000 DC students are currently unable to be vaccinated because they are not yet eligible.[14]

A robust virtual option for those who want or need it would not only prevent the spread of the virus, but it would address the weirdly depressed enrollment of 48,704 students in DCPS for SY21-22 (cited at the mayor’s press conference on 9/20/21), which is likely due to parents keeping their unvaccinated kids home out of a rational fear of covid.

11. Provide tech support in DCPS sufficiently such that there is a 1:1 device ratio for all students, and classrooms and teachers are able to pivot to virtual for some or all students through simulcasting or a fully virtual option.

Right now, Digital Equity in DC Education estimates that only 35% of DCPS classrooms have the ability to have a simulcast teaching session.

The tech survey work of that organization has also made clear that DCPS is falling far short of a 1:1 device ratio at all schools, such that even having any virtual option is precluded for large swathes of DCPS. There is also evidence of insufficient internet access and tech support for existing devices in DCPS, including many classes with nonworking smart boards and teachers without working laptops.[15]

12. Stop threatening families with disenrollment, reporting to child protective services, and punitive absence policies.

Right now, many families who have kept their unvaccinated children at home have been told they will be disenrolled from their schools come October 5 if they do not send their children in person to school. Many have had visits from child protective services.

These punitive policies hurt all students, most especially those with disabilities whose supports have been most at peril in the pandemic.[16]

DCPS absence policy even counts an absent sibling of a student diagnosed with covid as unexcused, when quarantining of all household members of any student diagnosed with covid is the rational and humane action for everyone, even the vaccinated.

In addition to enduring these punitive actions, DCPS parents must provide additional information to prove the need to quarantine if a student is not identified by DCPS for quarantine, including date of covid exposure; length of quarantine; and name, organization, and contact information of the medical professional or contact tracer ordering the quarantine.

13. Mandate vaccinations for all eligible students and roll out vaccines immediately after approval for children 5-11 years old.

DC is blessed to have plentiful safe and effective vaccines for covid—but the carrot approach is clearly not working with regard to covid vaccination. Analysis by Mary Levy shows low rates of covid vaccination among DC children who are currently eligible for it.[17]

As a society, we decided a long time ago that it wasn’t acceptable for kids to suffer from (and occasionally die of) vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles, smallpox, and polio.

Why are we pretending that deadly and highly transmissible covid is any different?

If LA can mandate vaccination for covid for all eligible school kids, so can DC.

14. Ensure the same rules for covid testing, quarantine, and vaccination apply to all DC’s publicly funded schools.

The acting head of OSSE said at the mayor’s September 20 update that 41 charter LEAs are participating in the city’s school-based testing program.

So: what’s happening with the other 20-some charter LEAs? Why is there any difference? Why don’t we know? WHAT don’t we know?[18]

We have decided as a society that the safety of kids at publicly funded schools is paramount. This is why we don’t have different rules for DC charters for, say, fire safety; building certification; potable water; clean air; vaccinations; and school nurses.

We should not have different rules with covid, either.

15. Put a stop to the politicizing of sensible public health measures for school children in a pandemic, like mandated vaccinations and virtual instruction.

Our averages of covid cases, and covid metrics, have for weeks now been above what the mayor herself set for safe re-opening.[19]

Yet, the deputy mayor for education himself implied to parents not only that virtual learning is inequitable, but that wanting virtual learning is somehow being against in person learning.[20]

Current punitive policies for absences and quarantine (as outlined in #12 above) ignore the traumatic reality of many DC families in this pandemic and prioritize a political desire: that of a return to normal in schools.

But what we are experiencing right now with covid is NOT normal! We need to meet our families where they are—not where someone’s political desire wants them to be or pretends they are.

None of the 15 action items above are beyond your power; the power of anyone in DCPS or DC charter schools; or the budget of DC.

Really: You, the mayor, and other elected and appointed leaders can do this–today.

Please: DO IT.


[1] I write this at a time of terrible statistics regarding DC schools and covid. Both DC school-based cases (see here: https://twitter.com/wperkinsDC/status/1436003213837225984) and cases among DC school-aged kids (see here: https://dccovid.com/ages.html) have been surging since DC kids returned to school in August. Not surprisingly, Children’s hospital has been full of covid cases in kids (see here: https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/childrens-national-near-capacity-amid-rsv-covid-surge/2799872/).

[2] Here is the latest for the group’s re-opening recommendations: https://educationdc.files.wordpress.com/2021/09/for-release-to-officials-dc-families-for-covid-safer-schools-asks-2021.pdf

[3] See the slide deck here from the mayor’s September 20, 2021 press conference: https://mayor.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/mayormb/release_content/attachments/COVID-19-Situational-Update-Presentation_09-20-21.pdf

[4] The original reporting is here: https://twitter.com/deliangoncalves/status/1435631767004848133 It was subsequently confirmed through reporting by Perry Stein in the Post that the cause for the Johnson MS exposure and subsequent quarantine was an unvaccinated staff member: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/09/19/dc-school-covid-quarantine-testing/

[5] I counted a minimum of 10 DCPS schools with failed HVAC in the days before school started (see here: https://twitter.com/DrTeeeee/status/1430545198698930179). The problems continued through last week (see here: https://twitter.com/EboniQueen3/status/1438479773567684609 and see here: https://twitter.com/codybnorton/status/1439233035703136261) and into this week (see here: https://twitter.com/codybnorton/status/1439923880815116289 and see here: https://twitter.com/mrvarhall/status/1440419911558303755).

That was hardly the only ventilation failure in DCPS: Several people took to fundraising to purchase or make covid-safe filters for individual classrooms (see here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/air-filters-for-dcps?viewupdates=1&rcid=r01-163097622253-f30f939ea1a04645&utm_medium=email&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_email%2B1137-update-supporters-v5b%2Bspider1c).

Yet, 11 days before school started, DCPS removed the HVAC reports from its “reopen strong” website: https://twitter.com/sandramoscoso/status/1428388076489957380.

[6] See slide 6 here for DCPS testing protocols: https://educationdc.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/back-to-school-update-presentation_08-18-21.pdf

The testing was supposed to happen for 10-20% of asymptomatic students weekly. Instead, the week of September 6, DCPS performed 4080 tests—less than 10% (see here: https://coronavirus.dc.gov/node/1558951). Far worse is the fact that the same chart reported only 26 positive student cases in DCPS—while another chart showed that no matter what day of that week you pick, MANY more DCPS students were actually infected with covid (see here: https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/dc-public-schools-dcps-data).

[7] See here for a more thorough outline of the group’s excellent testing protocols: https://educationdc.files.wordpress.com/2021/09/dcps-covid-testing_-what-we-need-now-e28093-dc-families-for-covid-safer-schools.pdf

[8] All of these, plus more recommendations, are in Sandra Moscoso’s testimony to you on 9/21/21, available here: https://w6pspo.org/2021/09/23/sandra-moscoso-testimony-dc-council-roundtable-on-dcps-and-dcpcs-school-reopening-september-21-2021/

[9] See here for information about the contact tracer disparity: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/09/19/dc-school-covid-quarantine-testing/

See here to see how contact tracing for students works in reality in DCPS (i.e., not well at all): https://twitter.com/DLPetroshius/status/1438634378134007810

See here for its failure with a DCPS teacher: https://twitter.com/teachergimbel/status/1439942679874375689

[10] It is not just DCPS that is slow. One website for reporting (https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/dc-public-schools-dcps-data) is not updated daily. Yet another website (https://coronavirus.dc.gov/data/schools) is not only not updated even weekly, but gives NO metric by which anyone knows what the case numbers represent in time (that day? that week?). The only thing that is clear is that the cases are not cumulative.

[11] Not only do schools lack what was supposed to have been provided, but the reason is due to foot-dragging by DCPS since spring. DCPS has instead cited supply chain issues. See here: https://twitter.com/ScottGoldstein/status/1437735710258339843

[12] This was the experience of DCPS parent Danica Petroshius, which she recounted here along with a fellow parent whose family also became infected through school contacts: https://drive.google.com/file/d/133VEvnty7rfeNbafanZ0Wa1hlaF1kHA6/view

[13] Thanks to Mary Levy for finding guidance from Virginia (https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/content/uploads/sites/182/2020/10/Child-School_COVID-19_Booklet.pdf); Tulsa, Oklahoma (https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1604073421/tulsaschoolsorg/wpqggsgdme6elsyxtgwd/District_COVID-19Response_English.pdf); South Carolina (https://scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/media/document/School-COVID-19-FAQ_FINAL_8.24.2020.pdf); Dane County, Wisconsin (https://publichealthmdc.com/documents/Child%20Care%20Center%20FAQ.pdf); and Oregon (https://www.mmdhd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/School-Scenarios-How-to-Handle-Exposure-to-COVID-19.pdf), all of which require cohabitating students regardless of vaccination status to quarantine with their covid-positive cohabitants.

Right before the 9/21/21 hearing, a council member tweeted out that updated guidance on this was coming from DOH: https://twitter.com/chenderson/status/1440356738755031043?s=20

While that’s a relief, it does nothing to address the ills caused by the current policy; doesn’t address the need for children to quarantine in households where an adult is covid-positive nor erases the inexplicable distinction in policy between vaccinated and unvaccinated co-habitants; nor explains why it took DC so much longer than other jurisdictions to recognize the transmissibility of covid among children in the same household, even among the vaccinated.

[14] This website has DC’s latest covid case stats by age (warning: it isn’t pretty for the under 18 set): https://dccovid.com/ages.html

The spike in DCPS cases this week alone is horrifying: https://twitter.com/AndrewZeitlin/status/1440271870901686275

[15] See the group’s excellent work and recommendations here: https://w6pspo.org/2021/09/21/grace-hu-testimony-dc-council-roundtable-on-dcps-and-dcpcs-school-reopening-september-21-2021/

[16] This (and more) is laid out eloquently in this September 15 letter to the mayor and council: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeyqDeYBfxcvoqBay5NhK8nDbGtnPqjGtBVEBHxv99FWmoOdg/viewform

[17] Recent vaccination rates for vaccine-eligible DC children are very poor. See this chart, which DC education researcher Mary Levy created using DOH data: https://twitter.com/MaryLevy17/status/1439272324805632001

[18] Here’s a challenge: Does anyone in any DC agency or elected office know what each and every DC charter school is doing with respect to

–testing;

–family communication of tests;

–quarantining;

–instruction of students in quarantine;

–ensuring teachers and staff are not penalized for taking time off to quarantine or to take care of children in quarantine;

–student absence policies for covid; and

–student disenrollment policies for covid?

If not, why is that an acceptable stance for public officials in a pandemic with a deadly and highly transmissible virus with respect to publicly funded schools that educate nearly half of DC’s students?

[19] The mayor’s own reopening stats are completely at odds with the mayor’s own covid phase guidelines. Take the color-coded chart at this website, https://coronavirus.dc.gov/page/reopening-metrics

Here’s what the chart looked like on 9/14:

Here’s what the chart looked like on 9/15:

Here’s what the chart looked like on 9/19:

Yet, even though most color-coded boxes are not green, DC remains in the phase 3 green. This makes no sense—worse, it actively endangers children. For what purpose is this misrepresentation of reality being done?

[20] See this in a parent’s deconstruction of a letter from the deputy mayor in response to a plea for help after kids became infected with covid at school: https://educationdc.files.wordpress.com/2021/09/mark-up-of-dme-response-09-17-21.pdf

.

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