Leaders at Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS Hesitated to Tell Families About Staff COVID-19 Cases and HVAC Systems In Repair

Originally published in Washington City Paper on August 23, 2021.


Three staff members at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to work in-person on Aug. 11, a fact the school did not share with families until the evening of Friday, Aug. 20, after City Paper asked why parents had not been informed. Students are set to return for in-person classes on Wednesday, Aug. 25. Sundai Riggins, the head of school, says they notify “those who [are] in close contact and those present in the building” when there are positive cases and “no students or families are currently in the building.” 

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 19, school leadership sent an email to parents informing them that their previously scheduled in-person “Meet Your Teacher” day planned for Friday, Aug. 20, would now be held virtually to reduce risk ahead of students returning to school next week.  

That same day, unbeknownst to parents, District Urgent Care staff was on site providing rapid and PCR tests to school employees; DC Health recommends that any close contact, even those who are fully vaccinated, get tested 3 to 5 days after an exposure. While no rapid tests were positive, the results of the PCR tests were still pending as of Friday night.

Friday morning, hours before the virtual parent meetings, school leadership shared staff on a document with talking points to use in their forthcoming discussions, which directed teachers to keep the positive cases to themselves.  

Among other things, if a parent or guardian asked their child’s teacher if someone at the school had gotten COVID—which happened in three confirmed instances in the past week—staff were instructed to say, “ITDS, like almost all other communities, has experienced positive cases of COVID since the pandemic began in March 2020.” The talking points continue to say, “ITDS is dedicated to the balance of transparency with our community while respecting the private health information of students, staff, and families.”

“I felt like we were being asked to lie,” one employee told City Paper.

Teachers and staff returned to the school building on Aug. 11, where roughly 80 employees have been gathering in a large multipurpose room for training and activities. Employees generally wear masks, though face coverings are removed occasionally for snacking and drinking. More than 90 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, according to the school. All staff members, except those with a medical or religious exemption, are required to be fully vaccinated.

The following Monday, Aug. 16, all staff were notified in an email from school COO Kate Keplinger that a fellow employee who had been with them on Wednesday and Thursday the week prior had tested positive. The email said all non-fully-vaccinated people had been notified, and fully vaccinated people should monitor themselves for symptoms for the next 14 days but need not quarantine.

That same day, two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19, a fact school leadership learned about Monday evening, but did not tell staff about until the following morning, when they all gathered together again in-person for training. At 12:27 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, Keplinger reiterated in an email to staff that two more employees had tested positive, and that they had last been inside the school building the day before. She informed staff that District Urgent Care would be available on Thursday to test any staff who was interested. DC Health’s guidance states fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine but should get tested 3 to 5 days after exposure.

City Paper asked if all staff involved in the trainings got the provided PCR and rapid testing. Riggins said “the majority of staff” took a rapid test and did not respond about PCR testing. When asked why the tests were optional rather than required for exposed staff, Riggins said, “Optional testing is in compliance with ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” 

But requiring COVID-19 testing if local public health authorities recommend it, which they currently do, is permitted under both statutes. 

“It is not a violation of the ADA or the Civil Rights Act to mandate testing,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, told City Paper. “If the staff member refuses to be tested, DC Health should order them to be quarantined for 10 to 14 days. Health and safety must always be the highest priority in schools. That means either getting tested or being quarantined. There are no other safe or reasonable options.” 

Riggins did not return multiple requests for additional comment.

One Inspired Teaching employee, worried about the in-person event with parents still on the books for Friday, and about other issues with COVID-19 mitigation at their school, reached out Wednesday afternoon to the Office of the D.C. Auditor. ODCA told the employee they would be treated as a whistleblower, according to the employee, who later reached out to City Paper.

City Paper contacted D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson on Saturday to ask what her office did with the information provided to them by the concerned staff member, and if they could share any correspondence they may have sent to other agencies or Inspired Teaching.

Patterson confirmed an employee reached out, and said they consider the employee “a whistleblower because the individual did not want their name used in any way from concern about possible reprisal.” Patterson said ODCA shared the information they learned from the employee with DC Health in case it could provide additional information beyond what the agency had already learned through the city’s contact tracing program.

Patterson—acknowledging that D.C. government emails are public information unless explicitly exempted under FOIA—shared the following from the email her office sent to DC Health.

Our office received a whistleblower alert from a staff member at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School about an outbreak. I’m sharing it with you as it seemed concerning, especially since an in-person back to school night is scheduled for Friday:

The whistleblower shared that at least 3 symptomatic staff at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School have tested positive for COVID via rapid tests after participating in a staff training conducted inside at the school. Other staff were not informed of these positive cases, and the school leader continued to organize additional days of the in-person training. Staff were also not instructed to quarantine. The school is hosting a large in-person “meet your teacher” event this Friday. The whistleblower is concerned that Friday’s event if it continues could infect more people. Additionally, half of the school does not have a functioning HVAC system nor the ability to open windows. Families have not been informed about the cases nor the lack of ventilation. The whistleblower has communicated with DC Health contact tracers who have been helpful.

Please let us know if more details would be helpful to DC Health. I know you will have at least some of this information via contact tracing.

Also, moving forward, how should school staff report such concerns to DC Health?

Patterson did not say whether DC Health responded to her office’s note.

DC Health did not return requests for comment on this story. 

As noted in Patterson’s email, Inspired Teaching had also been dealing for weeks with ventilation issues, though parents were not informed until Friday night, following inquiries from City Paper. “[W]e are currently repairing parts of our HVAC system, which has caused some cooling units to not work in a few classrooms,” the school told parents that night. At a Back to School Zoom meeting held for parents the prior evening, Inspired Teaching’s presentation read:

Mary Pitts, a parent of two Inspired Teaching students, told City Paper she was comfortable with how the school responded to the positive cases and, given the timing of them, did not feel it was necessary for school leadership to alert parents of those cases or of the broken HVAC systems ahead of students arriving on Wednesday.

“As school is starting every year, people get sick or last minute changes happen, and I very much presume that we, as parents, don’t expect to have insight into all of that,” she said, noting it’s typically hectic for schools before the start of any school year. “I feel for the staff—trying to react in an environment that is changing a lot, but I think [the school] put their protocols in place and it sounds like they deployed them.” Pitts praised the administration for responding to parent feedback around making outdoor lunch an option when weather permits, and said she and other parents are looking forward to sending their children back for in-person learning.