March 29 Newsletter - Your Questions on Schools, Unemployment - Answered!

I’m continuing with the question and answer format in this newsletter. Topics include: DCPS' announcement that it would adopt the CDC guidance of three-feet social distancing for students; the DC statehood hearing in the House of Representatives; updates on unemployment compensation; vaccines; and, rental assistance. 

Schools Reopening

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released guidance saying it is safe for students to socially distance three-feet instead of six-feet. Will more students be allowed to return in person?

Today, DCPS announced that it will adopt the CDC guidance of three-feet social distancing for students. I am very happy about this. I’ve gotten a number of emails from parents, particularly in Wards 1, 3, and 6, who are frustrated that DCPS hasn’t been more aggressive about getting students and teachers back in the classroom. I think we can all agree that in-person is where students not only learn best but best develop social-emotional skills. 

But I want to temper expectations: DCPS has said that the new three-foot rule will allow for more students in Term 4 (beginning April 19) to attend in-person classes in elementary schools where students don’t change classrooms or cohorts. It will be on a school-by-school basis; schools will reach out to parents in early April to offer slots. However, middle and high schools are not likely to see much adjustment until next school year because students change classes frequently, in what’s known as cohort-mixing. DCPS still believes cohort-mixing presents more of a health concern. 

My big concern remains that there is a trust gap of many parents, students, and teachers. We need to offer the vaccine to every adult who works in schools. There is a new program with CVS that has just launched to vaccinate educators. And I think DCPS needs to do more to build the confidence of families that safe measures have been put in place to protect the health and safety of youth and adult learners so everyone feels comfortable returning in-person.

Is DCPS returning to full-time in-person learning for next school year?

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee has told both the DC Council and parents in a recent DCPS town hall that “the plan” is to return all students who are interested to in-person learning for the next school year. I hope we can get more definitive on this soon. Many parents will likely be returning to physical workplaces if they haven’t already by the fall. Our DCPS families need to be able to plan.

The Chancellor also said that the system is “exploring” a virtual option for families that are reluctant to return in-person.

What is going on with in-person COVID-19 testing in schools?

There have been a number of COVID-19 cases in schools, and randomized testing helps prevent outbreaks from occurring. Right now, 10 percent of the student body is randomly tested per week. Educators and building staff have access to mail-in tests every 10 days, and they can get them in person too.

Unemployment Compensation

When will DC start giving out the unemployment benefits from the American Rescue Plan? 

Soon, but not soon enough. DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) Director Unique Morris-Hughes says it will take two to three weeks to make the coding changes in our archaic unemployment insurance technology system. Once again, this is why DC needs to make modernization of our UI technology a priority. My Labor Committee has made it a priority, and I hope the Bowser administration will continue to do so as well.

I know that many of you have been frustrated by the lack of communication from the DOES about the Biden Rescue Plan. I asked a few weeks ago, and I asked again on Friday in a formal letter to the agency to communicate directly with each claimant via email how the Biden Rescue Plan will benefit them. You can read the letter here.

I also have heard from claimants who filed for unemployment at the beginning of the public health emergency that they are concerned they have reached the end of their benefit year, and they will not be eligible for the Rescue Plan. YOU WILL BE ELIGIBLE. Some have seen a $0 account balance and have not been able to file your weekly certifications. I have alerted the agency and have asked for quick resolution.

The Rescue Plan helps those collecting traditional UI and PUA. Here’s a quick sketch:

UI: The plan extends UI into September. If you are currently in the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation extension, it will keep going. If you exhausted PEUC under the Continuing Assistance Act and were receiving EB the week of March 13, 2021, you have to stay on EB until you exhaust all of the EB benefits you are entitled to. If someone collecting EB becomes eligible for regular UI at any time, that person must stop receiving EB and file a new regular UI claim. Otherwise, when their EB benefits end, they become eligible for PEUC. 

PUA: The plan extends PUA from March 14, 2021 to September 4, 2021. Eligible individuals can receive up to 79 total weeks of PUA benefits (including any weeks of PUA, regular UI, and EB benefits an individual already received).

I’m at the end of my benefit year. I filed for unemployment last March. Am I still eligible for the American Recovery Act Benefits?

Yes.  If you no longer qualify for regular UI benefits, the American Recovery Act provides Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) weekly benefits for anyone unemployed between March 14, 2021 and September 6, 2021. Anyone receiving as little as $1 of benefits during that time also qualifies to receive a $300 weekly supplement through the FPUC program. 

COVID-19 Vaccine

Is DC getting a FEMA mass vaccination site?


Many residents have asked me if DC will get a mass vaccination site like the one in Philadelphia. According to the Washington Post, FEMA says DC is not big enough to get a site. This is frankly ridiculous, and I strongly urge FEMA to reconsider their decision.

I heard some residents got contacted by their health insurer and got the vaccine even though they weren’t eligible according to the priority system. What’s going on?

Some residents have told me that they have been offered a vaccine appointment by their hospital or health provider even though they aren’t a senior or otherwise eligible yet. When I asked why this is happening, DC Health said the resident might not be aware they are eligible. But enough people have contacted me saying they aren’t eligible to make me concerned. I have asked the Department of Health to look into this so that we can make sure our distribution system -- across all portals -- is equitable. I am concerned that we might be allocating too many doses to hospitals and health insurers and not enough to our registration portal.

Rental Assistance

I can’t pay my rent/mortgage. What should I do? 

There is help available! First, talk to your landlord if at all possible.

The Biden Rescue Plan provides two new sources of federal help, one for homeowners that will provide assistance with mortgage payments and the other for people having trouble paying rent or utilities. We are still waiting for applications to open up for these funds – but it may happen as early as this month. 

The Bowser Administration has contracted to build a rental housing assistance portal that will be ready in early April. This tool will act as a clearinghouse to help you find resources like help with paying back rent, finding legal protection, signing up for utility assistance and getting landlord and mortgage assistance. In the meantime, you’ll find useful information here.

DC Statehood

I heard DC might become a state. When is that happening?

If you weren’t able to watch the DC Statehood hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Monday, March 22, you can still watch it here

Kudos to Mayor Bowser, Chairman Mendelson, Congresswoman Norton, our Interim CFO Fitzroy Lee, DC military veteran Harry Wingo, and Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, for their testimony and for keeping their cool in the face of absurd questions from Republican House members. 

Statehood opponents argued ridiculously that DC can’t succeed as a state without an agricultural, manufacturing or mining sector and that it lacks an airport, a landfill and a car dealership – and that residents don’t have a source of income like farming. 

So what’s next? The committee will likely be voting on the bill soon, followed by consideration on the floor of the House of Representatives. Then it’s off to the Senate. With President Biden’s backing of statehood, our chances are better than ever, but the main obstacle lies in the Senate whose legislative filibuster requires a 60-vote threshold to advance a bill. I will keep you posted!


Thanks for reading.