D.C. Public Schools offered limited in-person learning during the 2020-21 academic year. Students like Katherine Bonilla, 16, at Columbia Heights Educational Campuswere screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms.
D.C. Public Schools will continue to mandate face masks for all students and staff when campuses reopen for in-person learning in August, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said Thursday.
It was one of few details Ferebee provided about safety protocols for the 2021-22 academic year during a public hearing the D.C. Council held on school reopenings. The 50,000-student school system will provide detailed health guidance for educators and families early next month after it receives more direction from city health officials, he said.
"We're not intentionally withholding any information," Ferebee said. "We're in a very fluid environment. The guidelines and protocols shift as things evolve."
Face masks have been required in D.C. schools throughout the pandemic but school systems elsewhere in the country have lifted mask mandates in recent months.
Charter schools, which educate about half of the District's public schoolchildren, will also continue to require face masks, said Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
In Virginia, health officials issued guidance earlier this week recommending — but not requiring — face masks for students and staff in all elementary schools and some middle and high schools. School districts are using that guidance to develop their own policies around masking.
During Thursday's hearing, Ferebee faced scrutiny from councilmembers over the lack of safety information available to families with just over a month left before the academic year begins. Students will be required to attend in-person learning unless they have a medical exemption, but key questions remain as the school system prepares to fully reopen for the first time since March 2020.
It is unclear whether students and staff will be subject to the same rigorous quarantine requirements that were in place last academic year, when far fewer students were learning inside buildings. The school system will likely still offer COVID-19 testing to people who are asymptomatic but Ferebee said health officials are still determining how that testing will happen.
Some protocols will likely differ from those issued last academic year, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendations for schools earlier this month.
"The CDC guidance has shifted in a number of areas that impact quarantining and reactions to positive cases," Ferebee said. "We will have to adjust."
The latest recommendations from the federal agency says masks should be worn indoors by everyone 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Coronavirus vaccines are available to everyone 12 and older.
Schools should maintain 3 feet of distance between students inside classrooms, according to the CDC. If physical distancing cannot be maintained, in-person learning should continue with other measures, including masking and keeping children in cohorts.
D.C. Public Schools and the Washington Teachers' Union are in the middle of negotiating an agreement for how the school system will reopen campuses in the upcoming academic year.
The current reopening agreement between the school system and union, which was reached after months of discord and legal challenges, expires at the end of August.
Washington Teachers' Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons has endorsed in-person learning for the fall. But the labor organization wants the school system to agree to additional terms.
The union wants leaders to guarantee that teachers will not have to educate students in person and virtually at the same time, if children have to quarantine at home. It also wants the school system to provide detailed information about the air quality inside classrooms.
Lyons said she is worried the delta variant, a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus, could pose more danger for students and staff as the school system marches toward reopening.
Research shows coronavirus vaccines are effective against the delta variant. Nearly 63 percent of D.C. residents have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine but inoculation rates vary across neighborhoods, with wide disparities between the wealthiest and poorest parts of the city.
"My worst fear is that we fail to protect our youths and our community from the still-deadly coronavirus," she said. "We must ensure protections are in place to prevent students from being exposed and potentially carrying the disease back to their family."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.