In October 2020, all 67 Local Education Agencies (LEAs) in the District submitted their Continuous Education and School Recovery Plans (CEPs), providing information on what changes they were aiming to implement during school year 2020-21 to best serve their students. The plans were mandated by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB). They included questions designed to prepare LEAs to serve students both virtually and in-person since it wasn’t yet clear in the months leading up to school year 2020-21 when schools would be able to re-open. Encouraging LEAs to prepare for both learning environments paid off: in March 2021 – approximately one year after schools physically closed – an estimated 88 percent of kindergarten to grade 12 students were still learning from home, while the remaining 12 percent were attending school in-person either part-time or full-time.
In addition to questions about adapting to virtual instruction and preparing for a return to in-person instruction, the plans also pushed LEAs to think about a range of challenges that might impact their students. They capture how LEAs hoped to address economic disparities as well as what steps they planned to take to support students’ emotional wellness. However, the CEPs are, by nature, preliminary. They can only offer insight into how LEAs thought they might address challenges during school year 2020-21; they can’t account for unknown factors. It’s possible that after the plans were completed and submitted, LEAs deviated from their initial ideas based on individual school needs and the District’s evolving response to COVID-19.
Cognizant of this limitation, the D.C. Policy Center reviewed all 67 CEPs to learn about how LEAs prepared for school year 2020-21. This analysis covers the 55 LEAs that serve students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, excluding 12 LEAs that serve adults or alternative students. While CEPs included information pertaining to school operations such as incident response planning, this analysis focuses on sections of the CEPs that impact students and families’ daily routines. It also incorporates findings from focus groups conducted by the D.C. Policy Center with parents, students, and teachers in August 2020 and October 2020 and offers a sense of how LEAs adapted to virtual instruction and how they planned to mitigate anticipated challenges.
LEAs by size
In school year 2020-21, there were 55 LEAs teaching students in pre-kindergarten to grade 12. DCPS is the largest LEA with 112 schools[i] that serve 55 percent of pre-kindergarten to grade 12 students. It’s followed by KIPP DC with 18 schools that serve eight percent of students and Friendship with 15 schools that serve five percent of students. Most other LEAs operate one to two schools each and collectively serve the remaining 32 percent of pre-kindergarten to grade 12 students in the District.
All LEAs began the year virtually, planning to deliver a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Synchronous instruction refers to interactive teaching while asynchronous instruction is conducted via pre-prepared materials that students can access at their convenience. DCPS, KIPP DC, and Friendship – LEAs that collectively serve 68 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5 – along with most other LEAs scheduled less synchronous and asynchronous instruction time for students at lower grade levels due to challenges associated with virtually teaching younger students. For instance, it can be difficult to give directions to younger students in a virtual environment. Younger students also often need caregivers to assist with classroom assignments, and in focus groups, parents reported that it wasn’t always possible for them to spend extended periods of time helping their younger children. Older students, on the other hand, reported in focus groups that their virtual schedules mimicked their normal in-person routines. They moved from one virtual room to the next just as they once walked from one classroom to another. They also reported spending approximately the same number of hours learning.[i]
School spotlight: KIPP DC, the largest public charter LEA in the District, planned to provide 1-2 synchronous hours and 1-1.5 asynchronous hours for students in early childhood grades while offering 4-4.5 synchronous hours and 1.5-2.5 asynchronous hours for students in high school grades.
Some LEAs including DCPS designed instruction schedules that gave students more time to complete assignments and gave teachers more time to prepare. They planned to offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction four days a week and reserve one day – most commonly Wednesday – for students to engage in exclusively asynchronous instruction. This gave students time to work independently while teachers were able to spend time planning, training, and collaborating (at least 40 LEAs out of 55 mentioned weekly professional development opportunities for teachers). LEAs also hoped to use this time to offer tailored support such as wellness checks and one-on-one or small group tutoring sessions. Teachers in focus groups reported how valuable this extra time was for them and their students, and they expressed interest in continuing the practice of four-day instructional weeks beyond school year 2020-21.[i]
Virtual instruction also necessitated changes to attendance collection, as it became more difficult to monitor student participation throughout the day. For example, a student could log into a morning class but skip the rest of the day, which meant that if an LEA took attendance once every morning, it wouldn’t reflect true student engagement. Students in focus groups also mentioned that some of their classmates would log into every class but leave their cameras off or not participate in discussions, making it difficult for teachers to assess whether they were present at all.[i] To address these hurdles, LEAs asked students to complete two tasks to verify attendance. The first was to make direct contact with a school staff member, which LEAs defined as a phone conversation, a face-to-face online interaction, or participation in class with the camera on. The second task was to complete a daily assignment and submit proof of completion via the school’s learning management system. 43 LEAs (serving 23.6 percent of students) mandated both attendance verification strategies. Seven LEAs (serving 11.5 percent of students) only required students to make direct contact with a staff member, and four LEAs (serving 64.6 percent of students) only mandated the completion of a daily assignment.
LEAs also revisited their codes of conduct. 51 LEAs that collectively serve 99 percent of students updated their behavior guidelines to include proper virtual etiquette. They added best practices for participating in a virtual classroom such as muting microphones when someone else is speaking and leaving cameras on during class. They also described what behaviors would not be tolerated, and planned to use disciplinary action to curb cyberbullying and the distribution of inappropriate content. If a student were to break one of these rules, most LEAs planned to respond with the same tiered approach they previously utilized to address in-person transgressions.
School spotlight: Center City PCS added three sections to its code of conduct. The first offers expectations around communication and student engagement. It mandates that students turn on their computer cameras unless otherwise directed by the teacher, dress appropriately, communicate respectfully with classmates, mute microphones when they are not speaking, immediately return to whole group meetings after breakout sessions end, not post any private information about themselves or others on discussion boards, and refrain from any forms of cyberbullying. The second section pertains to Center City’s learning management system. It mandates that students keep their username and password safe, log in to the system using their own log-in information, and log in daily for classes. The third section focuses on the use and care of physical equipment. It mandates that students use first and last names on their Zoom screens, only use websites for school-sanctioned assignments, treat all school and personal electronic devices with care, charge devices regularly, and report any damage to school equipment as soon as possible.
Grading, promotion, and assessment
Grading and promotion guidelines relaxed a bit during virtual instruction but remained largely unchanged. For instance, only 11 of 55 LEAs planned to switch to a pass/fail system, allowed individual teachers to decide grading policy, or relaxed grading guidelines overall. Assessments, however, looked dramatically different for students than they did in years prior. The most common exam administered in school year 2020-21 was the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment. To administer this test and others, 30 of 55 LEAs planned to proctor the tests remotely, 17 LEAs planned to ask students to sign integrity agreements, and a few other LEAs planned to allow students to help one another and use their notes.
These proxy testing environments demonstrate a strong effort to adapt to a virtual learning environment, but as with virtual attendance collection, they leave room for error. The variance across schools in how tests were administered makes it hard to evaluate and compare student performance. For instance, some LEAs allowed students to ask their peers for help during tests, which means their scores may not accurately reflect how much they’ve learned.
School spotlight: Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy PCS adopted a two-part assessment integrity plan: it asked all families to sign testing integrity agreements that included the parameters in which families and classmates would be allowed to help students. It also described how the Internet and other resources might be used during assessments. In addition, the school used GoGuardian, a tool that allows administrators to monitor students’ screens during assessments.
In addition to adapting routine procedures for a virtual environment, LEAs also had to consider what challenges students and their families might face in school year 2020-21 and develop strategies to address those challenges. The D.C. Policy Center’s State of D.C. Schools 2019-20 report identified four main challenges that the District’s education community experienced during virtual instruction: rising mental health concerns among students, a lack of access to technology or internet, infrequent or mixed communication between schools and families, and difficulties associated with serving students with disabilities and English learners. In their Continuous Education Plans, LEAs address each of these challenges, offering a range of mitigation techniques they planned to implement.
Mental health issues
LEAs anticipated that mental health issues would increase and every LEA planned to expand its infrastructure to address social and emotional wellness. The D.C. Policy Center focus groups corroborated this expectation, finding that some students were experiencing social isolation, financial hardship, and trauma at home. At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, some LEAs hired additional staff members or initiated partnerships with external mental health organizations to support students. Other LEAs planned to embed wellness checks within daily lessons and assign a wellness coach to each student. 16 of 55 LEAs trained teachers in summer 2020 to integrate social emotional learning practices into their curriculum, impacting 69 percent of students. LEAs also planned to create systems to identify struggling students and refer them to in-house or third-party counselors who would be able to provide more targeted support if necessary.
School spotlight: Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS reported that it would embed community building activities into its daily schedule. For instance, each day students would participate in a 30-minute advisory session. During this session, a teacher would conduct mindfulness activities to help students reflect on their emotional wellbeing. Teachers might also lead team building activities to help students connect with their peers. Members of the student support team and mental health team would use this time to identify students who might need additional support. The students would be supported by TMA’s health partners: The Department of Behavioral Health, the Wendt Center, Georgetown WISE, and One Common Unity.
Lack of access to technology or internet
At the beginning of the school year, LEAs surveyed families to assess how many students lacked access to necessary technology or internet so they’d have a better sense of what resources they needed to distribute. A majority of LEAs – 35 of 55 – planned to give devices to all students regardless of need, and the remaining 20 LEAs planned to provide devices to students who needed them. Hotspots were also given as needed. These efforts to distribute technology seemed largely successful, as most focus group participants reported receiving the technology they needed.
Focus group participants had more trouble accessing technical support. Some parents, particularly parents of English learners, found it difficult to help their students navigate online platforms and did not feel supported by their schools. To address this challenge from the 2019-20 school year, 51 LEAs planned to offer technical support and 46 offered training specifically for parents in the 2020-21 school year. However, it’s possible some parents didn’t know how to access these supports or the supports weren’t extensive enough.
School spotlight: DCPS, the District’s largest LEA, planned to provide live training for families on how to navigate virtual learning platforms. DCPS also partnered with OCTO to launch direct technical support through a family facing call center to address issues related to devices.
Infrequent or mixed communication between schools and families
In focus groups, all parents reported that clear and consistent communication from their schools was central to their happiness and security. However, there was significant variation in how they communicated with their schools. Some parents received the clear communication they needed to manage their schedules and juggle competing priorities. Others received mixed communication and felt stressed and disoriented. This lack of clarity was most troublesome for parents of multiple children attending different schools, as they found themselves constantly managing shifting schedules and expectations.[i]
To maintain and improve communication with families, all LEAs planned a range of outreach strategies. Most hoped to host virtual town halls, conduct periodic surveys, and keep families updated via social media, newsletters, emails, robocalls, and texts. Some LEAs were also aiming to have several one-on-one check ins with parents throughout the year.
Difficulties associated with serving students with disabilities and English learners
Another challenge LEAs faced was their struggle to reach students with disabilities and English learners. Approximately 16 percent of students who attend public or public charter schools in D.C. were eligible to receive special education services in school year 2019-20. To support them, most LEAs hoped to conduct regular check-ins, offer teletherapy, and assign case managers to each student (50 out of 55 LEAs offered training to parents). Unfortunately, some services for students with disabilities are difficult to deliver virtually such as physical therapy or services that require assistive technology, and many focus group participants with children who had Individual Education Plans (IEPs) reported that they weren’t receiving the support they needed from their schools. Reflecting these challenges, special education was one of the top two concerns in parents’ calls to the Office of the Student Advocate’s hotline in school year 2019-20 and among the top three most common disputes filed with the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education in school year 2019-20.
Parents of English learners, who comprise 12 percent of D.C.’s students, echoed these sentiments. To support English learners, 12 out of the 15 LEAs serving a student population with a greater percentage of English learners than the D.C. average planned to use one-on-one or small group sessions with English learners. In focus groups, some participants reported that not all English learners received these services and that some students had trouble navigating learning platforms. And if their parents didn’t speak English at home, they found it more difficult to learn the language, since their exposure to it had become so limited.
The information reported in the CEPs reflects all the knowledge and capacity LEAs had as of October 2020. Although it’s possible their plans to adapt to virtual instruction and address major challenges shifted over the course of the year, the CEPs are still a valuable tool in understanding how students and families may have experienced school year 2020-21 and offer insight into what issues LEAs are prioritizing.
Continuous education plans for school year 2021-22 for public and public charter LEAs were due on June 30, 2021. These CEPs focus on student and staff well-being, accelerated learning strategies, assessment data collection, how to reach students with disabilities and English learners, and the use of federal funds, indicating that emotional wellness and learning loss are two major priorities for the upcoming year. To address these priorities while also preparing to return to full-time in-person instruction this fall, it will be important for LEAs to take stock of everything they learned so they will be able to build on practices that were effective and re-work ones that were not.