Aug 24, 2022 - News

DCPS scrambles to prep buildings and students for another school year

Illustration of a pattern for backpacks.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Some D.C. public school students may return next week to buildings that lack working heating and cooling systems. Additionally, some students may be unable to return at all to classes due to missing key vaccination requirements.

Why it matters: DCPS and DC Health were required to report on the readiness status of schools by Aug. 19, including the condition of HVAC units and air quality monitors, and the routine pediatric immunization rates of children, per the Back to School Safely Emergency Act of 2022.

  • Children across the nation have fallen behind on their routine vaccinations, which include shots that prevent measles, mumps, chickenpox, and polio. D.C. students ages 12 and up are also required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Yes, but: On Monday, D.C Council chair Phil Mendelson tweeted that the Department of General Services still hadn’t sent the required documents on school readiness. A spokesperson for Mendelson told Axios that the office will meet with DGS on Thursday.

What’s happening: The office of Ward 4 council member Janeese Lewis George, who co-authored the emergency legislation, says it has received some, but not all of the required readiness data.

For example, the office doesn't know whether school buildings with poor HVAC systems have contingency plans.

  • One dataset shows that approximately 80 out of 120 schools need backup cooling/heating in place to support the HVAC system in need of repair.

A DGS dashboard outlines specific heating and cooling issues across D.C. schools, showing varying degrees of concern.

What they’re saying: Beyond cooling and heating systems, some teachers are contending with other school readiness issues.

When it rains outside, it also rains inside the classroom of Beth Prince, a kindergarten teacher at Hearst Elementary in Ward 3, she tells Axios.

Prince, who has been teaching for 30 years, says her floors are buckling and there is water behind her bulletin board. She has asked DGS to fix the issue but says little has been done.

  • “This is the kind of system we’re working in,” Prince says. “To have the youngest learners coming into a classroom with ceiling tiles hanging out … it’s unconscionable.”

DGS did not respond to Axios’ request for comment, but last week told WJLA that it’s continuing to prioritize work orders and said it has closed more work orders this year than in years past.

DCPS' vaccine problem: Meanwhile, as of mid-August around a quarter of D.C. public school students are not compliant with routine pediatric immunization requirements.

  • In June, D.C. urged parents to kickstart vaccinations, personally calling families and opening mobile vaccination units.

Across D.C.’s public schools and charters, immunization levels vary, per data provided by DC Health to Lewis George.

By the numbers: DC Health data shows that 29% of students enrolled at D.C. public schools are non-compliant with vaccines.

  • Students who go to school in wards 1, 2, 3, and 5 are each around one-third non-compliant.
  • Students who go to school in wards 4 and 7 are 27% non-compliant, and 24% in wards 6 and 8.

And while children under the age of 12 are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 as their shots are only authorized for emergency use, uptake remains fairly low.

  • Only 47% of D.C. children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of August 17.
  • A mere 11% of children under the age of 5 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 83% of children 12-15 and 77% of children 16-17.

Yes, but: A letter sent by DC Health on Aug. 19 to the D.C. Council says these routine vaccination numbers can be an undercount, as many students are vaccinated outside of the District. Families will be able to submit students’ health certificates in the first week of school.

The bottom line: Students across all District schools, including public, independent, and private who are not compliant will not be allowed to attend school, per the Office of the State Superintendent of Education’s policy.

  • A spokesperson for OSSE tells Axios that students have 20 days to submit up-to-date immunization records before they are prevented from attending school and after-school activities.
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