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D.C. Voices: How will facilities and operations adapt when schools reopen?

June 11, 2020
  • Tanaz Meghjani
  • Chelsea Coffin

On May 22, 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that D.C. Public Schools would begin its next school year on August 31. Public charter schools are determining their start dates independently, but it’s likely that some will align their calendars with DCPS. It remains uncertain whether students will attend school in-person, learn virtually, or participate in a hybrid of distance learning and in-person class. Conversations are ongoing, but it’s expected that school facilities will have to adapt, and operating procedures will change drastically.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published guidelines for schools to consider as they think about how to best protect their students, teachers, administrators, and staff. They offer strategies schools can implement to encourage behaviors that reduce the spread of COVID-19 such as teaching proper handwashing techniques and reinforcing the use of cloth face coverings. They also offer strategies to maintain healthy environments, maintain healthy operations, and prepare for when someone gets sick.

To further inform the conversation on safely reopening schools, the Learning Policy Institute reviewed the health and safety guidelines from five countries that have continued or reopened schools during the outbreak and successfully avoided spreading COVID-19. It compiled a list of best practices that overlap with the CDC’s guidelines and should be taken into consideration as the District plans for reopening.[i]

  • Attendance: given the health risks, on-site school attendance has generally been voluntary for all students in the first wave of reopening.
  • Health screening and quarantine: screenings occur daily and include temperature checks and symptom reporting upon arrival. If students or staff members are experiencing any symptoms or if they report having been in contact with someone who is infected, they are sent home.
  • School closure: a contingency plan for closing classrooms or schools should be developed.
  • Social distancing: countries that have reopened schools have taken various approaches to accomplish social distancing, including reducing class sizes, using large outdoor spaces in addition to classrooms, and using staggered schedules so fewer students are attending school at the same time.
  • Hygiene and cleaning: some countries have required masks for teachers and students and nearly all recommend frequent handwashing. Shared materials are discouraged, and common spaces are cleaned often.

The ReOpen DC Advisory Group’s recommended strategy for reopening schools includes elements of the strategies described above. The group recommends that students should return to campus on modified schedules, with students attending school on some days and participating in distance learning on others. Students should also have staggered arrival and dismissal times to allow for proper social distancing. The group also suggests a cap of 10 people, including teachers, in a classroom and recommends that lunch should be eaten in classrooms instead of in cafeterias. Schools would also receive enhanced cleanings under this plan and students and staff would take extra hygiene precautions such as washing their hands more frequently. [ii]

The Mayor’s administration has said they’re not bound to adopt these recommendations, but the report represents a good starting point and demonstrates that school leaders are committed to ensuring the reopening process is smooth and safe.

To learn more about conversations surrounding reopening, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to several education stakeholders to ask the following question: What is top of mind for you in terms of facilities and operations as you consider returning to learning next fall?

Althea Holford, Managing Director of Community and Government Affairs, KIPP DC

In considering these issues, the question that is top of mind for me is “how”? How can we ensure safety? How will students be separated? How often will surfaces be cleaned? And most importantly, how will we convey this work to parents and families?

Quickly after the stay at home order was declared, I thought immediately about school facilities. Having spent the majority of my career thinking about school facilities first at the Department of General Services, then at the Deputy Mayor for Education, I knew that reopening would present unique challenges for schools. Without construction to expand, school buildings are a finite resource – and they aren’t designed to facilitate socially distanced interactions. This is especially challenging given that spaces of learning often add to the lesson itself. Consider PreK-3 classrooms that are designed to enhance make-believe play. Or art rooms dedicated to visual exploration through different mediums. Or lecture halls created specifically for mock trial. All of these spaces will have to be reengineered to create the same learning experiences while allowing for social distance.

In considering these issues, the question that is top of mind for me is “how”? How can we ensure safety? How will students be separated? How often will surfaces be cleaned? And most importantly, how will we convey this work to parents and families?

The answers to these questions are still forthcoming as we all learn more about the virus, but school leaders throughout the District of Columbia are thinking critically about these answers. Any fix for COVID-19 will be complicated, but we’ve responded to changing times creatively in the past, and we’ll do it again. For example, some of D.C.’s older school buildings were constructed as open space schools. When this form of architecture lost popularity, dividing walls were built to create distinct classrooms. New social distancing requirements may prompt us to revisit this solution. We’ve done it before, but it’s important to remember that even this is not a simple fix. Constructing walls requires potential changes to HVAC systems, lighting, ingress, egress, and other parts of the building. This is only one example of the myriad of systems interplaying to reopen schools. At KIPP DC, a dedicated COVID-19 Taskforce comprised of members from  Operations, Academics, and other teams are thinking through these answers. Each recommendation will have implications for other changes. Each is also being considered with students and families at the center.

As a mom and as someone impacted by COVID-19, I also consider the ways facilities can give confidence to families as schools reopen. I remember when our family decided on Ellington. It was such a far commute from Ward 8 but we could hear singing through the hallways and see art on all the walls. It was easy to get a feel of the school and “see ourselves” there. To convey this kind of energy and feeling of safety and belonging, schools will have to think creatively. If I personally had to make the decision to reenter today, I’d be looking for so much more than programming. Facilities and distance to home would play a major role. To convey their commitment to student and staff safety, schools might consider conducting virtual tours for families and students or offering limited open houses.  Regardless of the method schools use, this step of rebuilding confidence will be critical for reentry.

Finally, in addition to getting the facilities up to par, we must as an education sector accept that distance-learning is not just a stopgap measure. Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, some families will not be comfortable in a traditional school setting. For them, a parallel, robust system must also be available. This is one issue that facilities cannot fix.

Dominique Fortune, Chief of Staff at Lee Montessori Public Charter Schools

In order to be able to plan effectively, we need clear guidance on issues like how to move children through the building, how we implement key parts of our program…and what aspects will be up to the school or Local Education Agency (LEA) to design and what will be mandated by the city.

All schools across the country (and world) are facing the reality of COVID-19. COVID-19 has radically changed the type of summer planning we at Lee Montessori PCS are doing for operations and facilities. By far the single biggest concern is the health and safety of our students, their families, and our staff. In order to be able to plan effectively, we need clear guidance on issues like how to move children through the building, how we implement key parts of our program (napping for younger children, shared materials, food preparation, for example), and what aspects will be up to the school or Local Education Agency (LEA) to design and what will be mandated by the city.

A Montessori school, by nature, is rooted in hands-on activities, shared materials, and little to no screen time. The switch to distance learning was a polar opposite of what our children and families are used to. We are in the process of polling our families and creating focus groups to help inform how we can best meet their needs as we move from full distance learning, to hybrid, and then eventually back to “normal”. We know there are families that will choose not to return until there is a vaccine and those who will need as much in person time as possible. Because of the many logistical challenges we’re facing, our academic and operational planning have to be totally in sync.

Our building, like many, is scheduled for significant construction over the summer and while we are under the assumption right now that things are on track, any delays that take place could potentially have negative programmatic impacts. Additionally, our Southeast campus is relocating to a new facility which adds another layer of complexity to an already complex situation. At this point, we’re planning for every possible scenario.

Reggie Galloway, Director of Operations at the Social Justice School

We’re weighing every option, waiting for guidelines from the city, and keeping in mind that the greatest thing we can do for one another right now is demonstrate compassion and patience.

Social Justice PCS is a newly authorized charter school that will be opening this August, serving students in grades 5 and 6 in the first year. Our mission is to teach our students how to be advocates for themselves and their communities. We’ll be co-locating with Rocketship Fort Totten PCS and their Appletree pre-kindergarten classrooms in a new location that is easily accessible via public transportation. Construction for the building is in progress, and we’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t seen any delays due to COVID-19.

As we prepare to open a new school in this climate, we’re weighing several different factors and trying to find solutions that will work best for staff members, students, and families – all of whom will be new to our community. To encourage enrollment, we’ve been speaking with our families once a week, we consistently host virtual events to give our families the opportunity to raise their concerns and provide feedback, and we’re planning to conduct an online survey. We also send our families care packages to further support them during this time.

In thinking about facilities and operations, we’re responding to feedback and prioritizing the needs of our community. We’re closely monitoring what public transportation will look like this summer and fall, and we have contingency plans for attendance, for example, that take into account the scenario in which families are unable to arrive at school on time. We also want to ensure that our staff and students are safe at school, so we’ll be enforcing social distancing protocols in the building and mandate strict hygiene rules. For instance, part of our curriculum involves a social justice maker space where students can use technology such as cameras, podcast stations, and 3D printers to formulate their own solutions to social justice issues. As we plan our opening, we’re creating guidelines that will make spaces like these safer to use such as restricting access to only one student at a time. We’re also considering a hybrid model that would involve some distance learning.

As Director of Operations, I want to make sure we do everything we can to keep our staff, students, and families safe. We’re weighing every option, waiting for guidelines from the city, and keeping in mind that the greatest thing we can do for one another right now is demonstrate compassion and patience.


To read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia, click here


Feature photo by Ted Eytan (Source)

Chelsea Coffin is Director of the Education Policy Initiative at the D.C. Policy Center.

Tanaz Meghjani is an Education Analyst at the D.C. Policy Center.



[i] Melnick, H., & Darling-Hammond, L. (with Leung, M., Yun, C., Schachner, A., Plasencia, S., & Ondrasek, N.). 2020. “Reopening schools in the context of COVID-19: Health and safety guidelines from other countries.” Learning Policy Institute. Available at: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/reopening-schools-covid-19-brief

[ii] ReOpen DC Advisory Group Steering Committee. 2020. “Education and Childcare Committee Recommendations to the ReOpen DC Advisory Group Steering Committee.” Available at: https://coronavirus.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/coronavirus/page_content/attachments/01.%20Education%20and%20Childcare.pdf




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.