On July 30, 2020, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that public schools in the District would start the academic year virtually and remain that way until November 6, 2020. This announcement does not apply to the city’s public charter schools, which educate nearly half of the city’s public school students. While a majority of the city’s charter schools have reported that they will begin the year remotely,[i] some charter schools and many private schools have decided to implement a hybrid model that will incorporate some in-person learning.[ii]
As schools prepare to reopen – either virtually or in-person – parents and caregivers are making critical decisions regarding their children’s education. They are considering a range of factors that include but are not limited to the following:
- Safety: Limited data about COVID-19 in children suggests that they are less likely to contract the illness than adults, and when they do get it, they generally have less serious symptoms than adults.[iii] However, some children may be at increased risk of getting COVID-19. For example, there are more COVID-19 cases reported among children with intellectual disabilities than those without. Children can also infect their teachers, other adults they might interact with, and household members – any of whom could be at increased risk.[iv] To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Center for Disease Control recommends that schools address four key areas: 1) promoting behaviors that reduce spread; 2) maintaining healthy environments; 3) maintaining healthy operations; and 4) preparing for when someone gets sick.[v] As parents weigh the pros and cons of in-person learning, they will be asking the following questions: Will it be possible for students to remain socially distanced while at school? Will there be adequate hand washing, especially for younger students? Can the school facility guarantee proper ventilation? How frequently will surfaces be disinfected? What will staggered schedules look like? What is the school’s action plan for when a student or staff member gets sick?
- Transportation: In D.C., many students travel long distances to attend school outside their neighborhoods: The average citywide walk distance for pre-kindergarten 3 through 12th grade students between where they live and attend school is 2.2 miles.[vi] Longer commutes may be most convenient by car or public transit, but both options are limited. Census data estimate that 46 percent of D.C. households do not have a vehicle available, and the city’s public transit system is offering less frequent service. Beginning August 16th, WMATA (the regional transit operator) will start a phased increase and ultimately operate a weekly schedule that provides 73 percent of pre-pandemic service.[vii] This is reassuring for families who are concerned about lack of transportation, but safety remains a critical concern with public transportation.
- Work schedules: Balancing work, child care, and managing distance learning presents a significant challenge for a lot of families. Some parents and primary caregivers working in person such as healthcare or grocery store workers may not have anyone at home to supervise learning. In many households, this balance may be even more difficult as 54 percent of children in D.C. are growing up in single-parent families.[viii] Parents working full time from home may also have difficulty balancing child care with the responsibilities of their jobs.
- Alternatives to public school: Families who can afford to do so may join “pandemic pods”. A pandemic pod consists of families who form a cooperative and hire a teacher or tutor to instruct their children at home.[ix] Other families might enroll their children in private school, which some believe will bring students into classrooms sooner than public schools. Some say private schools may be able to better ensure social distancing, as their campuses are larger and class sizes are already smaller.[x] Both of these alternatives exacerbate the achievement gap between students from wealthy families and students from low-income families.
- Efficacy of distance learning: When asked to choose between one of three models for the upcoming school year – in-person, all-virtual, or a mix of the two – a plurality of parents, 44 percent, selected the hybrid model.[xi] Parents worry all-virtual schooling is insufficient and their fears are not unfounded. Recent research on learning loss suggests students may return to school this fall having made almost a third less progress in reading and half as much progress in math, compared to what they might have learned during a traditional school year.[xii]
Parents and caregivers are understandably concerned. They’re considering a range of new factors as they make enrollment choices for their children, and it seems these factors are driving key changes in behavior. For example, limited data* from My School DC shows that, as of late July, new enrollments and post-lottery applications for school year 2020-21 are lower than they were in school year 2019-20. The largest decreases are seen in pre-kindergarten 3, pre-kindergarten 4, and kindergarten, which implies the schools serving these grades may face more of a challenge enrolling new pre-kindergarten students. My School DC’s annual survey of lottery applicants also provides insight into the impact of COVID-19 on enrollment decisions this year: 19 percent of lottery applicants who declined to enroll at their matched school said they decided to remain at their current school due to COVID-19.**
To learn more about factors impacting enrollment, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to several stakeholders to ask the following question: What factors are influencing school enrollment choices the most this fall?
Mashea Ashton, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Digital Pioneers Academy PCS
DPA serves a community and student population that is 99 percent Black and 96 percent residing in Wards 7 and 8, and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic has made many DPA families prioritize safety in their enrollment decision…Other important factors in a family’s enrollment decision are consistency, reliability, and convenience.
Digital Pioneers Academy is the first computer science focused middle school in Washington, D.C. DPA’s mission is to develop the next generation of innovators, preparing scholars to meet the highest academic standards while cultivating the strengths of character to both graduate from four-year colleges and thrive in 21st century careers. DPA serves a community and student population that is 99 percent Black and 96 percent residing in Wards 7 and 8, and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic has made many DPA families prioritize safety in their enrollment decision. Prior to us deciding to be fully remote, 60 percent of our families favored a fully remote program rather than a hybrid program. Our value of listening to create a known-loved-respected community led us to incorporate this feedback in our decision to be fully remote this fall.
Other important factors in a family’s enrollment decision are consistency, reliability, and convenience. When asked what DPA families suggest school leaders consider when designing a fall schedule, 74 percent of respondents cited a consistent schedule every week. The two other key priorities were schedules that provided access to the same teacher for a student all year and schedules that allowed for sufficient cleaning of the building. DPA families preferred options that were least disruptive and most predictable for their student’s learning, and the consistency also helped them plan for work and childcare. This feedback has led us to create a full day, remote schedule of live, synchronous learning that includes, English Language Arts (ELA), Math, Computer Science, Social Studies, Movement, Mindfulness, and Enrichment courses.
Our challenges recruiting for our new 6th grade class compared with our success in re-enrollment for 7th and 8th grade reveal additional factors that might make a family want to select or depart from a school. Prior to opening DPA, our founding team surveyed 200 families in Wards 7 and 8, and 91 percent of respondents prioritized a computer science education for their scholars. Knowing the transformational opportunities that computer science proficiency unlocks, our founding families and scholars have built strong relationships with teachers and deeply collaborated in our transition to remote learning. 95 percent of our rising 7th and 8th graders have re-enrolled, demonstrating their belief in a computer science education, their comfort and trust in our remote learning program, and their desire to maintain strong relationships with our teachers. Our commitment to developing the next generation of innovators and partnering with parents have been integral in making remote learning work, and we believe it has contributed to many parents finding reliability and consistency to continue learning with us.
Brittany Wade, Ward 7 PAVE Parent Leader
I am not confident that my children will be safe returning to school in the fall until the world and D.C. figure out how to properly contain COVID-19.
Coronavirus has significantly impacted the choices parents have to make about school enrollment this fall – but no matter the choice families make, this upcoming school year is going to be really hard.
I am not confident that my children will be safe returning to school in the fall until the world and D.C. figure out how to properly contain COVID-19. Looking at my city, I don’t think we have done a great job of making sure families and teachers are involved in the planning process of the reopening of our schools, so I’m definitely not confident that schools can ensure safe practices when they do reopen.
I also believe that my older children lack a lot of problem-solving skills and real-world experience. My children’s schools do a great job teaching material that will be covered on the PARCC test, but that doesn’t measure what a child feels and is passionate about. Children need these things in order to become better citizens for our community – this is something I believe I can teach them best myself at home, and it is something I believe is especially important right now.
Because of all these concerns, my husband and I have made the tough decision to keep our five children home and homeschool this upcoming year. I have struggled with the idea of pulling my children from school and know that this means I will have to find or make my own curriculum that I feel is best suited for my babies. I also have to factor in that my children won’t be receiving a regular homeschool experience in the midst of a pandemic. But, ultimately, I have to do what I feel is best – and for my family, that means keeping my children at home.
Dr. Jason Lody, Chief Executive Officer at Community College Preparatory Academy PCS
As adult learners, most of our students have children of their own, so they already have competing priorities and work demands that serve as an obstacle – so balancing academic schedules for their children as well as themselves presents yet another complex challenge.
I don’t think there is a single factor shaping enrollment choices for this fall – I think there are multiple factors. At Community College Preparatory Academy, we serve adults in the District of Columbia and focus on providing them with career development tools and training to support their future success. As adult learners, most of our students have children of their own, so they already have competing priorities and work demands that serve as an obstacle – so balancing academic schedules for their children as well as themselves presents yet another complex challenge. Many are struck with the fear of not being able to handle online learning due to limited technology competencies, or reliable access to time and space for independent work. These factors have always existed as barriers to enrollment but starting this school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely had an unprecedented impact we have never seen before. Many students are living with COVID-related trauma as a result of their own illness, or the illness and/or death of a relative, friend, or loved one. However, despite all of these unique challenges and obstacles, we have actually seen an increased motivation in many students to return to school as a result of job loss or a reevaluation of their career priorities such as professional advancement, a full career change, or the desire to become a more competitive job candidate. At Community College Preparatory Academy we are committed to working around these obstacles to enrollment and continuing education in any way possible to support our students and their goals.
Qiana Patterson, Vice President of Strategic Development at HopSkipDrive
Higher-income families have the ability to modify their work schedules to ensure they can safely transport their child to and from school, even if their district chooses staggered start times or a hybrid learning model. Lower-income families often do not have the same flexible work schedules.
Given the extraordinary and abrupt shift in our nation’s education system, now is the time to question decisions that have long impacted equitable education for all. My work at HopSkipDrive lies at the intersection of education and student transportation. While most school districts have decided to reopen virtually and many students are not traveling to and from school campuses today, this remains an important moment to conduct a meaningful examination of the impact of school transportation on enrollment.
At HopSkipDrive, we have been looking at our own data and it bears out what many of us have known: Black, Brown, and low-income students are disproportionately impacted by housing insecurity, lack of mobility, and access to opportunities such as high-quality education. The students HopSkipDrive supports, which include those who fall under E.S.S.A and the Mckinney-Vento Act, travel, on average, much longer distances and durations to and from school, which is only compounded by their lack of stability.
These students will bear the brunt of increased barriers due to the economic instability brought on by COVID-19. As parents and schools prepare to make critical decisions, the gap only widens. Higher-income families have the ability to modify their work schedules to ensure they can safely transport their child to and from school, even if their district chooses staggered start times or a hybrid learning model. Lower-income families often do not have the same flexible work schedules. Considering social distancing guidelines limit capacity on school buses, a reduction in public transit routes and the impact of modified schedules, students from lower-income families will come up against increased enrollment challenges.
Ultimately, we must critically engage in discussions that center student enrollment patterns and sustainable transportation solutions that ensure equity and advancement in education for all. We must ensure that all students have access to the best opportunity for learning in the upcoming school year by removing all transportation barriers that serve as unnecessary roadblocks.
To read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia, click here.
Feature photo by Personal Creations (Source)
Tanaz Meghjani is an Education Analyst at the D.C. Policy Center.
About the data
*My School DC only has data for those seeking to be new students in schools requiring an application.
**This data is from lottery applicants who responded to My School DC’s annual survey.
[i] District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. 2020. “Public Charter Schools Reopening Update.” Available at: https://dcpcsb.org/public-charter-schools-reopening-update
[ii] Stein, P., Zauzmer, J. & George, J. 2020. “D.C. Public Schools will start the academic year with all-virtual learning.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-will-start-the-academic-year-with-all-virtual-learning/2020/07/30/83f4bef4-d265-11ea-8c55-61e7fa5e82ab_story.html
[iii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. “Families Deciding How to Go Back to School.” Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/decision-tool.html
[vi] EdScape Beta. 2020. “Trends in Distance to School by Grade Band.” Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. Available at: https://edscape.dc.gov/page/enrollment-patterns-trends-distance-school-grade-band
[vii] George, J. 2020. “Metro service to significantly increase in August.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2020/07/20/metro-service-significantly-increase-august/
[viii] Kids Count Data Center. 2020. “Children in single-parent families in the United States.” Available at: https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/106-children-in-single-parent-families?loc=1&loct=2#detailed/2/2-53/false/37/any/430
[ix] Strauss, V. 2020. “The huge problem with education ‘pandemic pods’ suddenly popping up.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/07/22/huge-problem-with-education-pandemic-pods-suddenly-popping-up/
[x] Stein, P. 2020. “As public schools go all virtual in fall, parents eye private schools that say they will open their campuses.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/as-public-schools-go-all-virtual-in-fall-parents-eye-private-schools-that-say-they-will-open-their-campuses/2020/07/26/1e446ab0-cc5b-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html
[xi] Meckler, L., & Guskin, E. 2020. “Fearing coronavirus and missed classes, many parents prefer mixing online and in-person school, poll finds.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/post-poll-schools-parents-covid-trump/2020/08/05/f04ae490-d722-11ea-9c3b-dfc394c03988_story.html
[xii] Kamenetz, A. 2020. “With School Buildings Closed, Children’s Mental Health Is Suffering.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/14/855641420/with-school-buildings-closed-children-s-mental-health-is-suffering
D.C. Policy Center Fellows are independent writers, and we gladly encourage the expression of a variety of perspectives. The views of our Fellows, published here or elsewhere, do not reflect the views of the D.C. Policy Center.