D.C. Teachers Say They're Concerned About Returning To In-Person Classes This Fall As school systems across the Washington region grapple with plans for the fall, a national association of pediatricians issued guidance earlier this week advocating for in-person classes.
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NPR logo D.C. Teachers Say They're Concerned About Returning To In-Person Classes This Fall

D.C. Teachers Say They're Concerned About Returning To In-Person Classes This Fall

D.C. Public Schools students have been out of class since March 16 due to the coronavirus outbreak. LLLEV/Flickr hide caption

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Teachers in D.C. Public Schools are pushing back against preliminary plans to reopen schools in the fall, arguing the city school system has not adequately addressed health and safety concerns.

In an email sent Tuesday night, school system officials told teachers that classes will involve a mix of in-person and virtual instruction.

Teachers were asked to fill out a form indicating their plans for next school year and could choose between two options: return to teach in-person, or take a leave of absence because they are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, or live with someone who is.

Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said she was dismayed that school system leaders asked teachers to return to campuses before providing "a fully developed plan for how we safely and effectively resume instruction."

"[D.C. Public Schools] has decided to move forward without engaging the union, our members or the community in a meaningful dialogue about what education in our public schools will look like in the fall," Davis said in a statement.

Davis said the union has advised teachers to withhold telling the school system if they plan to return to work until officials provide more details about reopening. The organization is also urging the school system to allow teachers who do not feel safe returning to classrooms to continue teaching remotely.

It is unclear if signing the form would bind teachers to one decision or the other. School system officials said they plan on releasing more information about returning to in-person learning in coming weeks and will use feedback from the form, which must be signed by July 10, to finalize decisions.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in a statement that the school system has surveyed teachers, students, and staff about their preferences for reopening, and will "continue to gather critical feedback from our entire community."

School systems across the region are grappling with plans for the fall. In Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school system in Virginia, families can choose an online-only learning option or have students split time between in-person and virtual instruction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, a national association of pediatricians, issued guidance earlier this week advocating for in-person classes in the fall. Remote learning, the academy said, will likely result in severe learning loss and social isolation that can lead to serious emotional and health issues for students.

But teachers have increasingly signaled they are worried about becoming stricken by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In its email to teachers, the D.C. school system outlined safety precautions it would take once schools reopen, including providing face masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies. Social distancing measures would be put in place, including limiting the number of students in a class and separating students' desks.

But Ali Morgan, a special education teacher at School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens, said those measures do not account for the realities of teaching in a classroom. It would be challenging, she said, to keep younger students six-feet apart or prevent them from moving around.

Morgan helped survey 200 teachers about reopening schools for the Washington Teachers' Union, compiling the responses into a 20-page report that was submitted to the school system. The report included several recommendations, including staggering school start times so fewer students are clustered together at one time.

She said most teachers want to return to school — with adequate safety measures. She said she feels city leaders are not prioritizing teachers' health and she is concerned about the city's ability to provide enough money for protective equipment.

"It's like they don't care what we think," she said. "They don't care about our bodies and our health."

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