DC Leaders Talk About ‘Volunteer’ Teacher Plan, COVID-19 Concerns in Town Hall Meeting

By Amie Knowles

December 5, 2020

Local leaders also took questions in a virtual meeting.

WASHINGTON, DC – When will kids go back to in-person learning? That was one of several questions raised Dec. 3 in a town hall meeting for the District of Columbia.

Before taking questions, Dr. Lewis Ferebee, chancellor of DC Public Schools, noted that the district took safety measures for in-person instruction. CARE Classrooms – those serving grades pre-kindergarten through fifth – began a phased reopening plan last month.

“To support a healthy, safe environment, we’re providing testing to students and staff in person that exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19 and we also now have the ability to have an asymptomatic testing protocol, which includes a weekly test for staff members and pop-up testing at schools regularly for students,” Ferebee said. “This is again, another measure for us to ensure we’re able to maintain a healthy, safe environment for our students that are participating in in-person activities in our building.”

Reopening Dates

Another caller asked about school reopening plans, citing special concern for homeless and special needs children.

Ferebee said there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think about the points raised by the inquiry. Because of the challenges presented, Ferebee noted they would continue to wrap up the care model.

“In terms of direct instruction in-person from a certified teacher, we believe that we have exhausted our good faith bargaining with the Washington Teacher’s Union and are going to move forward with the terms in the tentative agreement we believe we have reached, which includes our teachers first volunteering for service in-person learning,” Ferebee said. “And then if we don’t have enough teachers that volunteer, we can begin to assign teachers based on demand from families.”

He noted that approximately half of families expressed their preference for remote learning. Ferebee said the option would be available for the foreseeable future during the school year.

“For those families that would like to have in-person learning with a teacher, our schools are currently working with our school communities on their school-specific plan for that to occur beginning in term three in February,” Ferebee said.

He further addressed concerns with starting schools on time. In August, he cited changes in the pandemic. In November, the issue stemmed from not having enough teachers to fill the classrooms.

“We believe that we’ve done the work to start in February. What we heard from our school communities, there needs to be space for customization for a model that is school-specific, based on the needs of that school community,” Ferebee said.

The plans allow schools to influence the decisions they make concerning their individualized reopening.

Back to School in DC

An inquirer questioned Ferebee about adding more CARE Classrooms.

“Each school opens additional classrooms based on interest and demand. And also, staffing [availability],” Ferebee said.

So far, 766 students accepted a seat in December. The district will gauge interest on remaining seats in December and as the school year progresses.

Another caller inquired about teachers’ schedules on Wednesdays.

“Wednesday is not a day off. It should be instruction happening, either synchronous with a teacher or asynchronous where a student has assignments or other work associated with instruction for that grade level or content area,” Ferebee said.

The time also allows for small group instruction, family meetings and information technology meetings.

The chancellor encouraged families interested in in-person learning to contact the division and council members.

Ferebee took another question from a concerned caller about students with elderly grandparents in the home. He asked if they could continue on a virtual path, rather than returning to in-school instruction.

“We will continue to offer a virtual option for students for the foreseeable future,” Ferebee said. “We encourage families where either students or members of the household have preexisting health conditions or if there are elderly individuals in the home to carefully consider any in-person options and are encouraged to continue with virtual learning.”

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Testing Sites

Virtual attendees also raised questions about COVID-19 testing sites in DC. Specifically, they asked about testing costs, if insurance played a factor and the average turnaround time for test results.

“I want to be really clear on this because I think this is a tremendously important point,” Osborn said. “We are asking folks who have insurance when they go to one of our public testing sites, either at our walk-up testing sites or any of our firehouses to provide their insurance information, which allows our testing teams to bill your insurance directly. Which, your insurance is supposed to cover the entire cost of that, so there should be no financial impact to a resident for providing their insurance when getting a test.”

Osborn confirmed free COVID-19 tests for those who cannot provide insurance. As for the test turnaround time, most results came back within three to four days. Specially, Osborn noted a 3.7-day turnaround time.

COVID Concerns

Others raised concerns about those struggling to make ends meet. With the temperatures dropping, DC patrons expressed fears of hypothermia versus COVID spread.

“It is a tough season for us as a community. We do have, in a good year, we have a number of facilities that are open. The big thing that we’ve done and it’s really the Department of Human Services, DHS, has had a huge effort to expand our healthcare system. We’re working with our community partners that traditionally provide beds to ensure that wherever it’s possible, we’re physically distancing folks and ensuring proper and hygienic conditions,” Osborn said. “We’ve also opened other facilities this season to allow our homeless services centers as well as our community providers some extra expansion capacity.”

Osborn noted an intentional effort to expand the number of beds available to those without homes.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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