How D.C. and its teachers, with shifting plans and demands, failed to reopen schools

Hours before the mayor was to make an announcement, she said she needed more time.

The city spent the next five months trying to bring students and teachers back to classrooms. A combination of mismanagement by the mayor and her aides and intransigence from the District’s teachers union combined to thwart every move, according to interviews with city officials, union leaders, educators and activists. The city kept changing its plan, and the union kept changing its demands. A lack of trust on both sides fueled failure at every turn.

As urban school districts across the country struggled with classroom reopening plans, a close look at the District’s experience shows how hard it has been to develop workable strategies — and how much power teachers wield, particularly when they have a strong union behind them.

The District’s impasse meant it squandered the chance to give its most vulnerable children classroom time while infection rates were low. Now the earliest any students will have face-to-face instruction will be February.

While teachers worked to persuade parents that reopening was dangerous and the District’s plan inadequate, the city did little to sell either the urgency of going back or the details of its plan to the general public.

The school system had proof that children were falling behind because of remote learning but sowed doubt in the findings by presenting inaccurate data. Principals had no input in shaping the reopening plan and were left in the dark about its details. Advocates for homeless children — the students city officials argued most urgently needed to be in school — never heard from administrators. Groups that worked with students with disabilities said they couldn’t get their questions answered, so these families were reluctant to go back.

Paul Kihn, deputy mayor for education, said the city surveyed families in the summer and knew about half were ready to return to school buildings. But city officials made a major miscalculation. They assumed they would be able to strike a deal with the union and enough teachers would be willing to come back to classrooms.

At least twice, the Washington Teachers’ Union reached tentative agreements with the city to reopen, only to back out a few days later. The union staked out demands that went far beyond what was in place elsewhere and beyond guidelines set by its national union.

The result: Teachers were applying maximum pressure to stay closed, but there was virtually no public pressure to reopen.

“The plans we made assumed we would be able to have our teachers in our buildings,” Kihn said.

Even as restaurants and salons opened to customers, as private and charter schools began in-person classes and available data show scant virus infection in the nation’s open schools, the traditional public school system has remained entirely virtual, with a few hundred elementary school students participating in virtual learning from classrooms under the supervision of nonteaching staff.

City officials maintain they have done everything possible to reopen safely and effectively.

“Our plans are being made on the best available science,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in July before previewing one of the city’s reopening plans. “There is no substitute for in-person instruction.”

The teachers union says it agrees, in theory, but has opposed every plan to open classrooms.

“It’s almost like they are building the plane while flying,” Elizabeth Davis, the union’s president, said. “That is not okay with us.”

Now city leaders are trying again. If health metrics allow for it — a major question given the surging caseloads — they plan to reopen all school buildings with teachers in February. This time around, according to city officials, principals, staff and parents are having more of a say in their schools’ reopening plans.

School is out

School had been virtual all spring and summer, and with the new academic year looming, Bowser planned to bring students back to schools. Schools would use a hybrid model, an idea employed across the country where students would be in class part of the week and home the rest. Teachers would return unless they qualified for an exemption.

It rested on a survey of teachers to determine who could come back, but the teachers union said its contract required terms to be negotiated and told its members not to respond. Bad blood between the city and teachers was already thick, with a toxic history of mistrust.

Teachers began venting on a private union Facebook page. They tagged one another, and the group grew fast from about 250 to some 1,000 members.

“I’ve tried to tell [school leaders] that this is not just a few rabble-rousers anymore,” said the union’s secretary, Laura Fuchs, a high school history teacher and a leader of the union’s far-left contingent.

Union participation swelled, prompting the union to upgrade its Zoom subscription. Even then, a July meeting hit the 1,000-person limit, and the union had to switch to another platform to accommodate everyone.

Fuchs’s growing faction inside the union embraced aggressive tactics. Teachers staged protests in front of the mayor’s and chancellor’s colonial homes in Northwest Washington. On July 28, a group of teachers dropped mock body bags in front of the district’s headquarters to warn of the deaths that they believed would result from reopening schools.

The union’s initial demands included hazard pay for going back and a suspension of teacher evaluations and standardized testing. These went well beyond guidelines adopted by the American Federation of Teachers, their national union.

In mid-July, Bowser had punted a decision on reopening until the end of July. When that deadline arrived, she canceled it altogether. All students would begin online in September.

Try and try again

By early September, school leaders had data showing how far students had fallen behind in the spring and during summer school. Some of the city’s charter schools began to bring small groups of students back to buildings.

“I think DCPS can do it, and I think DCPS should do it,” Bowser said.

She put together what turned out to be a tiny plan with limited programs and virtually no teachers at just 13 schools.

Union negotiations continued with the parties convening for virtual sessions — Ferebee sometimes logging on from an empty classroom between meetings; Davis at home, digitally surrounded by at least a half-dozen union representatives.

The mayor and chancellor did little to win support from the broader community.

A city committee had been formed in May to look at school reopenings, but the mayor did not seek its input or try to recruit its members as advocates for her plans, said Cathy Reilly, a longtime education activist who served on that panel. Kihn, who chaired the committee, responded that it disbanded as planned in the summer after it presented broad guidelines on how schools should reopen.

“They consulted with us after they had decided on it,” Reilly said. Yet she said she “absolutely” heard from Davis and other teachers about their concerns.

The chancellor held a few public forums and said teachers helped shape the plans during hundreds of hours of union negotiations. But the virtual town halls frustrated many attendees, as participants were forced to ask questions through a chat window, providing no opportunity for follow-up questions or pushback.

On Oct. 5, Bowser went to an elementary school to announce a new reopening plan. She appeared to have made no effort to recruit allies for it ahead of time.

School leaders and the head of the Council of School Officers, a union representing principals, said they were left to tune in to her news conference to find out what was going on, because there was no direct communication. These same people were tasked with answering parent questions, with scant information to share.

“I am learning the information in real time with you, so I am working to obtain more details for all of us,” said a note to parents from an elementary school principal.

Davis, too, said the mayor didn’t give her a heads-up that the plan was coming. The city again was surveying teachers to figure out who could return to classrooms. Again, the union told members not to participate.

Kihn said city officials knew they wouldn’t be able to get enough teachers for a systemwide hybrid model, so they settled on something smaller.

The plan they picked was complicated and appeared to please just about nobody. Eleven students per grade in each elementary school, chosen by lottery, could come back for in-person classes, with priority given to homeless, English-language learners and special education students. That would accommodate about 7,000 of the district’s 52,000 students. A second piece of the plan would let another 14,000 students could come back to buildings to do remote school from inside classrooms, supervised by nonteachers, including some administrative staff pulled from other schools.

Some students would have the chance for a more normal school day, but because classes were so small, the online classes for everyone else would grow larger. Some students would have to change teachers in the middle of the semester, frustrating parents who were already struggling to make remote school work.

Parents who wanted their children to return to classrooms were confused about what the in-person program would look like. Would they have the same teacher? Would they receive specialized services such as speech or occupational therapy?

“The lack of concrete and specific information absolutely made families lose confidence,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of Children’s Law Center, an organization that represents D.C. children from low-income households. “They didn’t have thoughtful answers to really legitimate questions that parents were asking.”

Confused parents bombarded principals with questions. Confused principals turned to Richard Jackson, the head of the Council of School Officers, who didn’t know any more.

“It has made the principals’ lives kind of miserable,” Jackson said.

Ferebee said he was fired for unrelated reasons — he was accused of not following enrollment rules last academic year, a lightning rod issue in the District — but the dismissal fueled fears that the city was glossing over safety concerns.

The principals union, normally a quiet group loath to complain publicly about anything, released a scathing letter deriding just about every aspect of the reopening plan.

The plan was aimed at high-needs students, but many of these families turned down slots offered by the school system.

“They didn’t understand it. They didn’t trust that their kids would be safe. And they already found alternatives,” said Ryane Nickens, who operates a learning hub out of the Langston Lanes subsidized apartment complex in Southeast Washington for children impacted by gun violence.

Nickens said the city failed to make the case to these parents, and she wished there had been meetings in school parking lots or courtyards of public housing complexes to answer questions. “They didn’t go directly to the people impacted,” she said.

Eighty percent of the school system’s 52,000 students are Black or Hispanic, and 47 percent are considered “at risk,” which puts them in the high-needs category.

Kihn said he thought the city did what it needed to do. Schools reached out to families personally to offer them slots. The District had expensive safeguards in place in classrooms to mitigate the spread of the virus. And they had people who wanted to go back, with demand about what the city had expected based on a summer family survey.

Before the city canceled the reopening plans, it offered about 5,500 students seats for in-person learning, and 2,200 accepted slots. The city was awaiting a response from 1,100 families and then planned to call more people to offer them slots.

A ‘final’ deal unravels

By mid-October, the city and the union both signaled they had finally reached a deal. A five-page agreement marked “FINAL” was circulated Oct. 14.

The chancellor committed to more measures than he had before, including a safety checklist for each school. Schools would require masks and social distancing. A health professional would be on every campus, taking temperatures and monitoring isolation rooms set aside for people showing symptoms. The city promised to update its air filtration systems with a $24 million plan to buy top-of-the-line air filters and portable air filtration systems for each classroom.

In an email, a labor lawyer for the city referred to the documents as “the final agreed upon version,” and the union shared them with reporters.

Overnight, the deal fell apart. The next morning, Davis insisted a union representative be empowered to verify that buildings were compliant with the agreed-upon checklist. It is unclear whether this had been her understanding all along or whether she added this demand after circulating the proposal with her members. It was not spelled out in the documents.

For their part, the mayor’s advisers said they were angry Davis continued to share tentative agreements with the media. They suspected she was trying to test reactions among teachers and the public before signing.

A week later, the Public Employee Relations Board delivered the city a debilitating blow. The union had filed a formal complaint over the teacher surveys, and the board concluded the city could not use the results. The board said the city was obligated to work through the union, not communicate with teachers on its own. Without the survey, the chancellor had no way of assigning teachers and staff.

An agreement with the union was not strictly required for schools to open. But school leaders feared they would not have enough teachers show up without a deal. Nonetheless, two days later, Ferebee told the D.C. Council that he would go through with a reopening plan even without an agreement with the union.

But now something else was holding up an agreement. The union said teaching had to be optional for all teachers, even those who are young and healthy, or nobody would go back.

Meanwhile, teachers had been lobbying parents to oppose the reopening, and the city had barely even tried to sell it to the general public. Not a single member of the city council spoke up in favor of the reopening plan.

Over Halloween weekend, the union and the city continued talks, and on the evening of Nov. 1, Bowser and Davis spoke by phone, Davis and aides to the mayor said. Bowser said the deal they reached had to stick for the entire school year. She didn’t want more uncertainty. But Davis wasn’t willing to commit to anything beyond the next quarter, saying circumstances could change.

Bowser also wanted to use the survey results to assign teachers. Davis objected to that, too.

During that phone call, Davis never mentioned what the union had planned for the following morning. That Monday, in the early hours, thousands of parents received emails from their children’s teachers telling them that they were taking a “mental health day” and would not be teaching that day.

In the end, 39 percent of all city teachers called in sick. An hour after the school day began, Ferebee emailed the community saying the District was abandoning its reopening plan.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this update may cause,” he wrote.

The city was left with a tiny plan: 450 or so students returned to 24 campuses in November for online school from inside supervised classrooms. By mid-December, around 900 elementary students accepted slots at nearly 70 campuses, with attendance hovering around 50 percent each day. These CARE classrooms were envisioned as serving 14,000 students, but the plan had to reduce the number, partly because schools were only able to use nonteaching personnel assigned to their schools for supervision.

This was cold comfort to Nery Pena, who had accepted an in-person slot for her second-grade daughter at Garrison Elementary in Northwest Washington. She was also hoping for a spot for her younger daughter, who has developmental delays and is struggling with distance learning.

The family lives in transitional housing, which means her daughters meet the federal definition of homeless and were given priority in the lottery for seats. When Pena told her daughters they might be returning to school, her youngest was particularly excited.

“If the plan was not definite, they should have kept it to themselves and not informed parents because parents are obviously going to inform their children,” Pena said. “I was counting on it. I was getting ready.”

In the aftermath, Bowser and Ferebee explicitly blamed the union for the failure to reopen schools.

“The primary barrier now for in-person learning is having the supply of teachers to teach in those classrooms,” Ferebee told families at a town hall meeting.

Again in November, the union signaled a deal had been reached for teachers to return to classrooms on a purely voluntary basis, at least at first. But looking like Lucy, who repeatedly pulled the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment, the union changed its mind a few days later and another agreement unraveled.

Infection rates were surging throughout the region. The effort to give some students classroom instruction in the first semester had failed.

Focused now on February, the third quarter of the academic year, Ferebee and Davis signed an agreement last month that is intended to reassure teachers. They will not get a carte blanche to refuse to teach in-person but will be required to return if not enough teachers volunteer. It also outlines safety protocols and protective items that will be in each school building. The city recently started testing asymptomatic students and staff, which teachers had wanted.

Ferebee says he is “optimistic” schools will reopen with teachers in February. Some teachers have already volunteered to return, though Ferebee said it is fewer than he expected.

As the pandemic rages on, school leaders are visiting school buildings, touting their safety features and hoping they can someday say their plans were successful.

“We will be able to say this is a success,” Kihn said, “when the students that really need to be in school buildings with teachers are back in school buildings with teachers.”

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