On July 30, 2020, Mayor Bowser announced that D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) would begin the 2020-21 school year entirely virtually. Most public charter schools have made similar decisions, including the city’s two largest charter networks: KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS. This virtual start will follow a shortened 2019-2020 school year that included 10 weeks of remote instruction. To prepare for another quarter of distance learning, many educators, families, and stakeholders are reviewing what lessons were learned last spring.
Contributing to this effort, the D.C. Policy Center reviewed distance learning plans from the spring and identified three common themes that may be important to focus on this fall.
Addressing the Digital Divide
In the spring of 2020, schools and local organizations tried to improve access to devices and internet for the estimated 28 percent of households in D.C. who lacked access to a computer or broadband internet at home before the pandemic.[i] By June, DCPS had distributed 10,000 tablets and laptops and 4,000 hot spots to its 52,000 students.[ii] The city’s 62 charter operators took similar steps, ordering 1,600 hotspots for students who lacked WiFi.[iii] Charter schools also addressed these issues individually. For example, IDEA PCS shuttled devices to students’ homes to ensure they were delivered in a timely manner, and KIPP DC PCS distributed Chromebook computers to all its middle and high school students and sent Android tablets to elementary students.
Local organizations also stepped in to help bridge the digital divide. The DC Education Equity Fund, established by the Greater Washington Community Foundation in partnership with Education Forward DC and the DC Public Education Fund, distributed $1.6 million in grants[iv] for student technology in the spring[v] and has reserved $600,000 to help fill technology gaps this fall.[vi] The TraRon Center, which works with children in Ward 8 affected by gun violence, is another example of a local organization that provided laptops to families who need them.[vii]
These efforts were a good but insufficient first step. In a survey circulated by DCPS, more than half of respondents indicated they lacked the necessary support to participate in distance learning.[viii] The survey was only completed by about half of the school system’s families, which means the needs of the other half are unknown. For the upcoming year, DCPS has purchased 21,000 more computers and has committed to providing a device to any student in need. The charter sector is taking similar steps. KIPP DC is promising every student a Chromebook, and Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS is distributing laptops and offering to pay for Internet for families who cannot afford it.[ix]
Increasing Student Engagement
Attendance during distance learning was low for some students last spring. In an April 2020 Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) survey, 58 percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded said less than half of their students were regularly attending class.[x] Low student engagement can be attributed to several practical and social-emotional factors, including limited access to technology and lack of motivation, among others. For example, in a survey of public school families conducted by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) in June 2020, 71 percent of respondents cited lack of motivation as one of the main challenges their child faced during distance learning.[xi]
The DC State Board of Education Student Advisory Committee Report, authored by approximately 20 public and public charter high school students, including the two State Board student representatives, recommends strategies from a student perspective that might increase student productivity and engagement during periods of distance learning:
- The use of only one digital platform per school that allows students to obtain work, submit assignments, communicate with teachers, access video lessons, and join live sessions
- Realistic timelines for completing daily work in each class
- A uniform approach to distributing and submitting assignments
- A balance between live video and prerecorded learning
- Transparency and leniency in grading and more opportunities to complete assignments for extra credit
- More widespread access to technology, high-speed internet connection, and IT support
- Access to mental health services.
Prioritizing Social-Emotional Wellness
School closures, social isolation, fear of illness, and parental unemployment have all destabilized common support systems available to children. As schools begin to reopen, focusing on social-emotional wellness will be critical.
In a survey of students conducted by the State Board of Education Student Advisory Committee, only 25 percent of students reported feeling that their mental health is prioritized as much as or more than their academic success.[xii] This sentiment is echoed by families who responded to the June DME survey – 66 percent said social or community connection to other students is one of the most important supports for their children to receive this year. Thirty-nine percent said the same of social emotional supports and counseling services.[xiii]
To learn more about how distance learning will look this fall, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to school leaders, parents, students, and advocates to ask the following: What lessons were learned from the transition to distance learning in the spring? How should members of the education community change their approach to distance learning for the upcoming school year?
Mary Shaffner, Executive Director, District of Columbia International School (DCI)
This summer, we created task forces for parents, students, and staff to reflect, provide guidance, and improve upon our plan. We heard students loud and clear: they wanted more time with teachers. And we are giving our staff the tools to make that happen.
DCI, a middle and high school offering instruction in three languages, fortunately transitioned to distance learning fairly seamlessly. In early March, as we watched China and Europe shut down, we created a Distance and Hybrid Learning Plan. The transition happened quickly: on March 10th we trained staff, on March 13th we trained students, and by March 17th we moved to full distance learning. DCI has always provided all students with a Chromebook to take home and utilizes digital tools in classes daily, so our students thankfully had the technology and knowledge to jump right into distance learning with our teachers.
This summer, we created task forces for parents, students, and staff to reflect, provide guidance, and improve upon our plan. We heard students loud and clear: they wanted more time with teachers. And we are giving our staff the tools to make that happen. Each day, we open our professional development (PD) by modeling how to build community in their distance classes. We also made the following changes based on task force feedback:
- We set requirements for live teaching time and increased live teaching time for our teachers.
- We mirrored our normal bell schedule, instead of using a different distance learning schedule.
- We kept Friday our non-instructional day because staff, families, and students requested it.
- We had difficulties tracking attendance last spring, so we now take daily attendance in our homeroom class with cameras on.
- We created policies to set expectations around distance learning and spent time in PD on them.
Moving to distance learning last school year gave us the opportunity to learn what worked and what didn’t. We made learning and relationship building a priority during professional development and after lots of serious hard work from our staff, we are ready to start the school year online.
Laura Maestas, Chief Executive Officer, DC Prep PCS
As a network, our DC Prep PCS team prioritized two things throughout the spring for our elementary and middle school students – Wellness and Learning. As we prepare to start SY20-21, those remain our big priorities, and we have refined our focus based on our learnings from last spring.
The abrupt transition to distance learning in March of 2020 was challenging for everyone – students, their families, and school staff. As a network, our DC Prep PCS team prioritized two things throughout the spring for our elementary and middle school students – Wellness and Learning. As we prepare to start SY20-21, those remain our big priorities, and we have refined our focus based on our learnings from last spring.
We continue to believe in the importance of Wellness, for all members of our community. For students, we are focused on ensuring that students are known as individuals. Students have been assigned to a “pod” of 12-14 other students and a “pod teacher.” The pod teacher will be an advocate for the students in their pod, building a deep understanding of those children as learners and people, and communicating frequently with children’s families to simplify and strengthen the connection between families and the school community. Students will learn alongside their pod for much of the day, enabling them to build strong relationships. As part of their daily schedule, students will have “community time,” which is dedicated to students’ social-emotional development and creates space for discussion and community building.
To support ongoing learning, we are taking an individualized approach to each student’s strengths and growth needs. With their pod teacher, each child will co-create an individual learning plan that contains goals in English Language Arts (ELA), Math, and social-emotional development. Teachers are all being trained on Universal Design for Learning – to better understand and support the unique needs of children. Finally, each child will participate in small group instruction two to four times per week in both ELA and Math, alongside five to six students with similar academic strengths and needs. By using assessment data to understand students’ unique starting points and focusing on what they need as individuals to be successful, we can support students’ ongoing learning amid the challenges of COVID-19.
Shayla Dell, Student Representative, State Board of Education (SBOE) SY 20-21
We have worked through several kinks to unite and create an efficient school year, and I’m sure we’ll have many more issues to work through, but we’ll do it as a team.
As a result of the large number of tribulations we as a society and community have faced due to COVID-19 this spring, I have learned a multitude of lessons. I have been able to learn not only from my own conflicts and frustrations with the difficulties the pandemic has brought my way, but I’ve also learned from the experiences of others. Through empathy and sympathy, I have been able to connect to other individuals in greater depth via social media, word of mouth, and real-life experiences. I felt this connection strongly during the transition from on campus school to distance learning. The virus presented staff, parents of children, education officials, and students with a universal conflict: the friction of continuing the instrumental process of education while following the guidelines and precautions necessary to keep our communities safe. Of course, dealing with this new problem required some trial and error, which proved to be, at times, discouraging for all parties involved. This has not stopped us. Instead, it has forced us to adapt.
This leads me to what I learned from the transition to distance learning in the spring. I learned to utilize the significant character tool of adaptability. As an individual, who often plans nearly every aspect of their life, I initially had difficulty grappling with the impact of the obstacle we were presented with. Since this initial encounter, I have been able to recognize my use of adaptability in all sorts of situations. I intend to incorporate this attribute in my approach to distance learning this upcoming school year. We have worked through several kinks to unite and create an efficient school year, and I’m sure we’ll have many more issues to work through, but we’ll do it as a team.
Lewis D. Ferebee, Ed.D., Chancellor of DC Public Schools
We promise to take everything that we know now to give students the rigorous and joyful learning experiences that they deserve, even in a virtual setting.
Over the spring and summer, DC Public Schools teachers and staff focused on how to maximize the learning at home experience for the 2020-2021 school year. As we walk this new path of virtual instruction together, DCPS’ mission remains the same: to provide rigorous and joyful learning experiences for every student, every day.
Through stakeholder surveys, we heard from approximately 3,400 students, 8,600 families, and 5,200 staff members’ families, staff, and students to determine an efficient and engaging plan for reopening. We are aligning our community’s input with DC Health guidelines and are committed to prioritizing safety, maximizing learning, and promoting equity. The learning at home experience will look different this fall in the following ways.
Students Learning Online, Every Day. We collaborated with over 200 teachers and staff to tailor our curriculum to a virtual experience to better organize our approach to learning at home. This fall, we will continue to draw from the expertise and feedback of our educators so that learning materials meet the needs of all students, including those with special needs, and ensuring their learning experiences are efficient and user-friendly.
Consistency in Scheduling. Our approach has shifted this fall to better support families, as we worked hard to develop thorough schedules for students to engage in live lessons, small group collaboration, and independent work time. We approach learning holistically, so these modified routines are centered around wellness and relationship building, just as much as they support academic excellence and productivity.
Equitable and Accessible Technology. We heard concerns about adequate access to technology devices and internet, and we know that reliable technology is integral to the success of our students this fall. With the support of Mayor Bowser, we are investing nearly $17 million toward technology for learning at home. We are committed to provide a device to any student who needs one, and we are growing our inventory to more than 45,000 devices to support students in grades PK-12.
Now more than ever, DCPS is focused on our children feeling loved, challenged, and prepared as we begin the school year. I encourage families to RSVP for one of our upcoming Parent University sessions, which are focused on helping families succeed during learning at home. We promise to take everything that we know now to give students the rigorous and joyful learning experiences that they deserve, even in a virtual setting.
Rashida Young, Chief Performance Officer, DC Public Charter School Board
Schools have submitted plans that include how they plan to deliver instruction, engage families, support technology, ensure students’ health and safety, and much more.
This school year will be unlike any other, but it’s exciting that students will have an opportunity to learn, and engage with their teachers and classmates. Nearly every public charter school will start the year off with remote learning. At the same time, a small number will offer some in-person instruction – this includes some of our new schools, adult education programs, and traditional programs. As we work closely with the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, schools have submitted plans that include how they plan to deliver instruction, engage families, support technology, ensure students’ health and safety, and much more. These plans will be made available to the public.
Grace Hu and Melody Molinoff, Parent Leads for Digital Equity in DC Education[xiv]
When we as a city refuse to address the digital needs of our school system by not providing a technology floor for a 21st century education, we are contributing to systemic inequality. We must do better.
This past spring, parents experienced the wasted energy and student learning loss that occur when families lack the technology and IT support to fully participate in distance learning. We learned some important lessons that should inform the District’s approach to distance learning this fall.
- Every student needs a DCPS-issued device as the baseline for distance learning. In the spring, schools mobilized and loaned out laptops and hotspots, but some schools did not have enough devices to distribute and families experienced delays in receiving devices. Many parents who used personal technology struggled with compatibility and connectivity issues and realized that personal devices were inadequate. To be successful each child needs dedicated access to a computer that is compatible with DCPS learning applications, and unlimited high-speed Internet for video-streaming and other distance learning demands. We have urged DCPS to accelerate the existing Empowered Learners Initiative, an agreed-to three-year plan to move DC Public Schools to a 1:1 student-device ratio and ensure a technology floor that provides every student a dedicated, reliable, and supported device. The acceleration of the plan would allow all students to begin the school year with the appropriate devices that are loaded with the required learning apps.
- Every teacher needs a DCPS-issued device to teach in a distance learning model. During the pandemic, many teachers used their own personal devices or DCPS student computers, which in some cases could not fully support applications and features that teachers need for distance learning.
- Families need robust IT support and training to troubleshoot and understand DCPS learning platforms. This past spring, the lack of family-facing IT support meant families were on their own to navigate hardware, software, and connectivity issues. Real-time, robust IT support is needed to minimize learning disruptions. Parents need practical, live training opportunities to better support students.
When we as a city refuse to address the digital needs of our school system by not providing a technology floor for a 21st century education, we are contributing to systemic inequality. We must do better.
To read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia, click here.
Feature photo by Rawpixel Ltd (Source)
Tanaz Meghjani is an Education Analyst at the D.C. Policy Center.
Amanda Chu is an Education Intern at the D.C. Policy Center.
[ii] Stein, P. 2020. “D.C. had a summer to connect with students and close the digital divide. Did it?” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-had-a-summer-to-connect-with-students-and-close-the-digital-divide-did-it/2020/08/24/3b533112-de22-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html
[iii] Stein, P. 2020. “As D.C. students struggle to get online, schools and parents rush to fill the void.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-schools-online-access/2020/04/07/5a4f3d66-754c-11ea-85cb-8670579b863d_story.html
[iv] Grants were split proportionally, based on overall enrolment, between DCPS and public charter schools, and allocations to public charter school operators were determined based on enrollment of students designated as at-risk, as well as enrollment of adult students.
[vi] Stein, P. 2020. “D.C. had a summer to connect with students and close the digital divide. Did it?” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-had-a-summer-to-connect-with-students-and-close-the-digital-divide-did-it/2020/08/24/3b533112-de22-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html
[vii] Stein, P. 2020. “As D.C. students struggle to get online, schools and parents rush to fill the void.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-schools-online-access/2020/04/07/5a4f3d66-754c-11ea-85cb-8670579b863d_story.html
[viii] Stein, P. 2020. “D.C. had a summer to connect with students and close the digital divide. Did it?” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-had-a-summer-to-connect-with-students-and-close-the-digital-divide-did-it/2020/08/24/3b533112-de22-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html
[x] WTU Reopen DC Taskforce. 2020. “Reopening our Schools.” Washington Teachers’ Union. Available at: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/wtulocal6action/pages/297/attachments/original/1592838681/Reopening_our_Schools_-_Taskforce_Report_-_FINAL.pdf?1592838681
[xi] Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. 2020. “Public School Family Engagement Survey Review.” Available at: https://dme.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dme/publication/attachments/DME%20Survey%20Deck.pdf
[xii] Student Advisory Committee. 2020. “Student Advisory Committee Report SY2019-2020.” District of Columbia State Board of Education. Available at: https://sboe.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/sboe/page_content/attachments/SY2019-20%20SAC%20Final%20Report.pdf
[xiii] Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. 2020. “Public School Family Engagement Survey Review.” Available at: https://dme.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dme/publication/attachments/DME%20Survey%20Deck.pdf
[xiv] Digital Equity in DC Education is a volunteer coalition of DCPS parents dedicated to closing the school system’s digital divide.
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.