The start of in-person learning at Bell Multicultural School in Washington D.C. Assistant principal for grade 9, Edilberto Galvan, welcomes 9th grader Fatou Gaye for the first day of in-person learning in the District.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU/DCist
Many public schoolchildren in the District returned to classrooms on Tuesday for the first time in nearly a year, while tension between city leaders and the Washington Teachers’ Union intensified after Mayor Muriel Bowser sought a court order that would bar the union from holding a strike.
The first of more than 9,000 D.C. Public Schools students returned to campuses across the city, part of the broadest return to face-to-face instruction in the school system since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered campuses last March.
At Columbia Heights Education Campus, administrators stood in the lobby of the school, greeting students as workers in medical gowns and face shields took their temperatures. The school, which serves students in grades 6 through 12, expected to have about 50 students return for in-person learning.
Principal Maria Tukeva said the school prioritized bringing back students who needed the most support, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
“A big part of school is the relationship you have with students, and it’s so hard to keep that energy in a virtual world,” Tukeva said. “We’ve been doing everything possible but there’s nothing like being able to be with the students.”
It took months and several attempts for the city school system to reopen buildings. Throughout, many families and the Washington Teachers’ Union argued it is not safe to bring students and educators back to campuses during the pandemic. Some teachers said they do not trust the school system to provide the necessary safety equipment it promised and others urged the school system to delay reopening until teachers received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The disputes continued this week. On Monday, Bowser asked a D.C. judge to issue an order barring the union from planning a strike that would delay the start of in-person learning.
According to court documents, the school system learned late last month about plans for a possible “work stoppage” on Monday, the first day students were initially scheduled to return to classrooms. Snow forced the school system to delay reopening by a day.
The school system said it sent three emails to the union between Jan. 27 and Jan. 31, asking the union to issue a notice to its members that would bar them from planning a strike. The union responded to one of those emails and refused, according to the city. D.C. law does not allow city employees to strike.
“There is little dispute that youth — and especially at-risk youth — benefit mentally, intellectually, and emotionally from in-person instruction,” the city’s complaint said. “Delaying safe, in-person learning with an illegal work stoppage will push students even further behind.”
Some elected leaders, including members of the D.C. Council, decried the city’s decision to seek an injunction. At-large member Christina Henderson called it a distraction. Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George said it was wrong. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, a D.C. Public Schools parent, said it amounts to coercion.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the union does not currently have any plans to strike — but she did not rule out the possibility. In an email to teachers, Davis advised educators to return to in-person work and warned going on strike could result in severe penalties, including termination and fines.
Davis said she called a meeting of the union’s executive board Monday night, which authorized a vote that would determine if union members supported asking the board to call a strike.
The union president said holding the vote does not violate any laws. Lawyers for the union have asked the court to deny the city’s request.
“Bottom line: because no strike is ongoing or imminent, any action by the court is unnecessary and premature,” Davis said. “The vote itself is not a strike nor is the vote itself prohibited by D.C. law.”
DCPS spokesperson Elizabeth Bartolomeo said there was no evidence large numbers of staff decided to take a personal day Tuesday.
“Our scheduled teachers returned to the classroom today to welcome their students back to school,” she said.
The school system did not provide information on the number of students who attended class in person.