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Photo/ DC Public Charter School Board (Source)

D.C. Voices: Lessons learned after a year of virtual instruction

March 25, 2021
  • Tanaz Meghjani
  • Chelsea Coffin

On March 24, 2020 – exactly one year ago – D.C. public schools and many public charter schools began their first day of distance learning. The D.C. Policy Center’s State of D.C. Schools report documents how students, parents, and teachers (representing the most directly impacted groups) experienced this transition to virtual instruction.[i] The report incorporates a review of LEAs’ distance learning plans, local surveys, government reports, others’ analyses, and qualitative findings from focus groups conducted by the D.C. Policy Center.[ii]

The report identifies critical challenges the District’s public schools faced such as addressing student mental health issues, ensuring all students had access to devices and internet, communicating effectively with families, and effectively serving students who usually receive additional supports in the classroom. Amidst all these challenges, some guiding principles on what worked well emerged: be intentional, be innovative, focus on needs beyond the classroom, and prioritize family engagement.

During the development and launch of the report, we heard from education stakeholders and community members on how these four principles impacted their experiences during distance learning. To find out more, watch our community voices video and read about what worked well for some below.

Be intentional with big changes

When school leaders took time to pause and assess needs and available resources, they arrived at more thoughtful approaches.

We understood that there were families who had multiple children in the school. It would be impossible if they had one child in fifth grade, one child in first grade, and only one device. How would those students get instruction if they had to share one device for different classes? So we had staggered times for each grade level to have their live instruction on Zoom.

Teacher and focus group participant

In our adult learning classes, the school asked what were the best times for us to do our homework and our school work, and I told them that for me and for many of us, it’s at night. So this new year, they adjusted the program so that I can do most of my work at night.

Adult learner and focus group participant

Distance learning is now more organized… last year when we first started, they would have everybody who was taking a certain class in that one period…So it could be 50 kids in the virtual class at one time, and it got overcrowded. But now they split it up, and the classes are divided equally, and it’s easier to learn.

High school student and focus group participant

The district is squarely focused on our recovery and planning efforts, which we at the DME are approaching in three phases: an immediate response phase, a recovery phase, and a longer term reimagine phase. During our immediate and ongoing response phase, we as a city are focused on ensuring the highest quality ongoing teaching because we recognize that learning in schools today is delivered by our exceptional educators. It’s the single best way to mitigate any potential learning slide. As we continue into our reimagine phase, we will explore opportunities to bring the lessons learned from the pandemic into the new way we serve our students and families.

Paul Kihn, Deputy Mayor for Education, Washington D.C., in opening remarks for State of D.C. Schools report launch

Be innovative

As student needs became more distinct over the course of the pandemic, it became necessary to respond more creatively.

To support seniors who are applying to college, our school created a class for all seniors that is just dedicated to that…my friend who takes the class says the teacher reminds them and keeps them informed about the FAFSA application and things like that.

High school student and focus group participant

This is the first year I’m working with students on a one-on-one basis…I think this year I have a much truer idea of what each student I work with needs academically, so I would love to find a way to incorporate that once we’re back in school…I think that would be a cool idea because…if one student has a skill they need to work on, they can do that.

James Tandaric, Teacher speaking as a panelist for the State of D.C. Schools report launch

I appreciated that my school allowed teachers the flexibility to create their own schedules. They understood that we were all responding to the pandemic in our own ways, and people had their own children or parents or themselves to take care of. And I appreciated that flexibility.

Teacher and focus group participant

Focus on needs beyond the classroom

By developing a holistic approach that took access to resources and mental health issues into account, schools were able to maximize student well-being as well as academic achievement.

Getting healthy food was critical for me to keep my whole family in good health.

Adult learner and focus group participant

My school also provided lunches for a good 3-to-4-month period. They would just send out these emails or send out notifications about when students in the area and families could go in and get lunch from them.

Parent and focus group participant

[My school] really helped me a lot because when the school sent a survey, they were able to help me to respond to it, and I was able to get technical assistance. And that made a whole lot of difference. I’m really grateful to [my school] for doing that because that changed a lot of stuff in my house.

Spanish-speaking parent and focus group participant

During that whole transition from school to home, my school definitely provided support. For example, if a student didn’t have any type of technology at their home like a computer or any type of Wi-Fi, they provided us with a hotspot or gave us connections through companies that did give out free Wi-Fi during the beginning of the quarantine period. They let us take home our computers and our iPads, so there was definitely support there.

High school student and focus group participant

We pivoted towards adapting our virtual mental health care. We did more outreach to children and families to make sure they knew we were still there. We supported learning online therapeutic strategies to better engage, especially our small children in wanting to do virtual mental health care and stay involved.

Marisa Parella, Director of School Based Mental Health, Mary’s Center speaking in State of D.C. Schools community voices video

The social work team had check-ins with each classroom on a weekly basis.

Teacher and focus group participant

Prioritize family engagement

Developing and maintaining strong relationships with families improved the distance learning experience for many.

One of the first questions they asked me was, ‘How do you want us to contact you? Are you open to socially distanced home visits? Do you want to hop on a Zoom call?’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they actually care about my opinion. They’re not just telling me what they’re going to do.’

Katrice Whitaker, PAVE Parent Leader in Education speaking as a panelist for the State of D.C. Schools report launch

I communicated heavily via text messages with my parents. I had some parents who asked if they could have individual reading sessions, which I gladly jumped on Zoom for, and we did a reading lesson…I especially tried to make sure parents knew what was going on and also knew that they could get in touch with me whenever they needed or wanted to.

Teacher and focus group participant

Truly one of the greatest lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic is just how essential strong family relationships are. Our kids have thrived during this pandemic – even remotely – with the support of amazing parents, guardians, grandparents, aunts, uncles who are helping them with all of their lessons at home. The stronger those relationship are between the parent and the student and the teacher, it means that everyone can be on the same page in making sure the kids understand what they’re learning, what work they need to do, what time their online classes are, and how to be successful remotely.

Gaelen Gallagher, Principal at KIPP DC Honor Academy speaking in State of D.C. Schools community voices video

My priority was to check in with families to make sure they were okay. Our family engagement team and our community partners gathered resources to support our families in the form of gift cards, food, mental health services, and supplies. I communicate with my parents through weekly newsletters and check ins. I have found that the key to building and sustaining trusting relationships with families is to partner with families, plan with families, and welcome families as part of their child’s academic success.

Lakisha Scarlett, teacher trainer at Flamboyan Foundation speaking in State of D.C. Schools community voices video

For more information on the main findings, read the State of D.C. Schools, 2019-20 report and view our launch event recording:



Tanaz Meghjani

Former Education Analyst
D.C. Policy Center

Tanaz Meghjani served on the D.C. Policy Center staff as an Education Analyst from September 2019 to July 2021.

In this role, Tana conducted data analysis and supported the Policy Center’s Education Policy Initiative. Prior to joining the D.C. Policy Center, Tanaz worked as a Consultant at Quadrant Strategies, a research and strategy firm based in Washington, D.C. She has also worked as an analyst at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and as a researcher at Paste Magazine.

Tanaz is originally from Atlanta, GA and holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Yale University.

Chelsea Coffin

Director of the Education Policy Initiative
D.C. Policy Center

Chelsea Coffin joined the D.C. Policy Center in September 2017 as the Director of the Education Policy Initiative. Her research focuses on how schools connect to broader dynamics in the District of Columbia. She has authored reports on diversity in D.C.’s schools, the D.C. schools with the best improvement for at-risk students, and the transition after high school in D.C. Chelsea has also conducted planning analysis at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, carried out research at the World Bank, and taught secondary school with the Peace Corps in Mozambique.

Chelsea holds a Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College and a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in International Economics and Development.

You can reach Chelsea at chelsea@dcpolicycenter.org.


[i] The report focuses primarily on the spring of 2020, but it also includes an update on how things are going in fall 2020.

[ii] The D.C. Policy Center conducted two rounds of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with parents, high school students, adult learners, and teachers. The first round took place in August and September of 2020, and the second round took place in November of 2020.