Teacher mental health day halts DCPS reopening plan

Anna Arnsberger

DCPS chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced that DCPS will be cancelling plans to begin limited in-person learning for elementary schools on November 9. This decision follows teachers across the district opting to take a mental health day to protest previous disputed reopening plans. 

Only 34 Wilson teachers worked on Monday, November 2, as 101 of their coworkers chose instead to take sick leave. The Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) organized this mental health day to express their opposition to DCPS’s arrangement that would bring 7,000 elementary school students and their teachers back to in-person classes at the start of term two.

Health teacher Rebecca Bradshaw-Smith, Wilson’s WTU building representative and a member of the union’s executive board, explained that the idea for a mental health day was introduced as early as when the November 9 return date was announced. 

The WTU has been in negotiations with DCPS for weeks over a memorandum of understanding regarding the return to school, but the two parties have yet to reach an agreement. Throughout these talks, the union staged numerous protests including a Ward Three gathering at Fort Reno and car caravans to the Mayor’s house.

On Thursday, October 29, 93% of union members voted “no confidence in Mayor Muriel Bowser, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, and the DC Public Schools plan to reopen our schools to in-person learning on November 9, as it currently stands.” At the same meeting, members voted for the mental health day to take place on Monday.

Negotiations continued through the weekend, and even with the knowledge of the possible upcoming protest, Ferebee remained firm in moving forward with the original plan. Following these talks, WTU President Elizabeth Davis reaffirmed that, “The chancellor’s plan to reopen our schools to in-person learning will disrupt the education of a vast majority of DCPS students. As educators, we do not believe this plan is good for our students or good for our schools.”

Only when the mental health day took full effect on Monday morning did Ferebee retract the plans to being in-person learning next week. He announced that all students will have virtual learning on November 9 and that DCPS is in the process of adjusting their reopening timeline. Ferebee added that they are still taking steps to open Canvas Academics and Real Engagement (CARE) classrooms for virtual learning.

Bradshaw-Smith thinks that Ferebee would not have made this decision had the mental health day been less successful. “I want to believe that we knocked them on their heels, you know, because I don’t think they believed that we had enough chutzpah to do it,” she said.

Ferebee’s announcement didn’t come as a surprise to Kelly Crabtree, a fifth grade teacher at Murch Elementary School, who said she was “cautiously optimistic that this delay is a sign that there is recognition of the many flaws and issues around this plan.”

Prior to the mental health day, the union worked to instruct teachers on how to take leave in compliance with their schools’ policies and reassure them that there is power in numbers and they would face no retribution.

Along with filing for sick leave in the morning, teachers made sure to leave asynchronous work for their students to ensure that they could continue their learning.

Junior Jillian Upshaw had three of her teachers take leave Monday and she says she supports them through the entire process. “It seems like DCPS is just leaving teachers out of everything so might as well cancel classes just to show them how powerful they can be with this,” Upshaw said.

Though the November 9 plan primarily impacted elementary schools, many Wilson teachers knew it was vital to stand in solidarity with their fellow teachers. “We wanted to make sure that our feeder schools knew that we had their back,” said Bradshaw-Smith, “we understand what’s going on because your children impact our children.”

Social studies teacher Robert Geremia added that, “The process DCPS uses to return to in-person elementary schooling would probably be replicated with the return to in-person secondary schooling… therefore, we all should be part of this discussion.”

The union had concerns that the timeline to begin reopening on November 9 was rushed and unsafe. “Right now, it does not make sense to go back. Not when everything is on the rise. I mean, all the numbers are going up, there’s nothing that is steady,” Bradshaw-Smith said. 

Crabtree was primarily upset that DCPS’s decisions were made without involving teachers, administrators, and parents. She pointed out that while Murch has been recently renovated, “reopening our school will put pressure on other schools to open regardless of whether or not if they are safe for students and staff.”

Bradshaw thought that the return plan simply did not make sense; she questioned the purpose of having only 11 students and one teacher per grade and putting extra students in unfamiliar classrooms. 

In regards to the use of secondary school teachers in elementary schools, Geremia wondered, “What can a secondary educator possibly do in an elementary school except become vulnerable to community spread and babysit children?” Bradshaw-Smith called that proposal “a slap in the face.”

As DCPS begins restructuring their timeline for reopening, the union made clear that they will remain vigilant. In a gathering outside School Without Walls on Monday afternoon, Davis said, “Going forward, we want to ensure that Mayor Bowser and Chancellor Ferebee return to the bargaining table with teachers, engage parents in the plan for reopening to ensure that when it happens it is going to protect our students and families.”