D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools shifted to distance learning in the spring of 2020 and largely began the same way in the fall. Since then, more and more public charter schools have started exploring in-person options, including the city’s two largest charter networks: KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS. As of October 30, 2020, 19 local education agencies (LEAs) were offering some form of regular in-person programming, defined as meeting with students more than once a week and offering onsite teaching. An additional 17 LEAs were offering limited in-person programming, defined as meeting with students once a week, hosting orientation sessions, and organizing one-on-one meetings.[1] 13 DCPS schools were also allowing small groups of students to attend in-person programming that included tutoring, physical education, and career and technical education.[2]

In early October, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee announced that DCPS would bring some pre-kindergarten and elementary school students back to classrooms at the start of Term 2 on November 9. On November 2, DCPS cancelled those plans after negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union failed to resolve questions about how to safely reopen schools.[3]

The DCPS plan would have allowed 21,000 of approximately 54,000 pre-kindergarten and elementary school students to return to physical classrooms, and would have prioritized seats for students who experience homelessness, students who receive special education services, students who are English learners, and students who are designated as at-risk.[4] Of those students, 7,000 would have been taught in traditional classrooms with a teacher leading the lesson. The remaining 14,000 would have attended CARE (Canvas Academics and Real Engagement) classrooms to continue virtual learning under supervision of nonteaching staff.[5] Other students would have continued virtual instruction.[6]

D.C. Public Schools will not reopen as planned, but in an email to the DCPS community, Chancellor Ferebee stated that they are still taking steps to reopen in the future and are working to confirm staffing plans.[7] Four public charter LEAs are planning to open in some capacity in November while 30 additional LEAs remain fully virtual at this time.[8]

Figuring out how to reopen schools is a challenge that many large urban school districts are trying to navigate. As the District takes steps to identify what changes need to be made to safely and successfully transition back to in-person learning, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to school leaders, parents, teachers, and students to ask the following questions: In short term, what changes would make students, teachers, and staff feel safe attending school in person? What academic and socio-emotional supports would ensure student success? What about in the medium and long-term?

 

Dane Anderson, Chief Operating Officer, KIPP DC

Good execution of a strong safety plan paired with deep relationships between staff and families starts to build and reinforce the trust needed during this time.

We believe that building and maintaining trust with students, staff, and parents is critically important during this time. That requires honesty about our building improvement and safety protocols, open and frequent lines of communication when an issue comes up, and commonly shared grace when something needs to change or improve. Specifically we’ve found two things to be particularly helpful: 1) publishing and training staff, students, and parents on clear, comprehensive health and safety protocols and 2) proving that we can execute on those protocols, especially during in-person activities. That’s not to say that issues can’t or won’t come up – but good execution of a strong safety plan paired with deep relationships between staff and families starts to build and reinforce the trust needed during this time.

We are thinking about student success as a sequence of needs. First, we believe that students need to feel connected and supported by their peers, teachers, and school community – this requires building relationships and a sense of belonging early and reinforcing these feelings. Second, students need to have the tools and resources for learning and well-being – this is access to the right staff (teachers, mental health professionals, etc.) and ensuring that students have every resource they need to be successful (e.g., a device for every student, access to literature, in-person support when needed, etc.). And finally, to be fully engaged in their learning we believe that students need to feel a sense of constancy and continuity with their teachers and schools.

 

Greta Etherton, Ward 2 Teacher

Students need what they’ve always needed: relationships, play, individualized instruction, and academic support. Teachers will continue to provide these opportunities for students, but we’ll be more successful in creating an environment of academic growth if we’re healthy and taken care-of.

Reopening schools is a nuanced discussion. It requires experts across multiple fields to collaborate in order to ensure the best possible outcome for our D.C. school families. However, teachers have been left out of that discussion and as a result, the plan for reopening lacks an on-the-ground perspective. When the plan was released, teachers noticed immediately that there was no in-school testing plan in place, despite examples from other big city school districts and guidance from various national health institutions. Although it wasn’t addressed in the reopening announcement, teachers noted that we’ll be reopening just before several major holidays, and at the beginning of cold and flu season. Many of us are excited to go back and be with our students in person again, however we’re concerned about a rise in cases due to the timing. We need to hear the mayor address these concerns, acknowledge that winter and reopening will likely lead to an increase in cases, and put a school-based testing plan in place in light of those factors. We need to know that if there are cases in our schools, they will be found. For those of us who teach in unmodernized buildings, we need to know that our windows will open so we can let in fresh air. We need proof that our HVAC systems will be functioning properly.

As for socio-emotional supports, we educators know that our students’ physical needs must be fulfilled before their emotional needs can be met. Unfortunately, this close to reopening, we’re still having to advocate for their physical safety. I’m concerned about how our students will succeed if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in their cohort, but we don’t catch it quickly because we’re only screening for symptoms. Students need what they’ve always needed: relationships, play, individualized instruction, and academic support. Teachers will continue to provide these opportunities for students, but we’ll be more successful in creating an environment of academic growth if we’re healthy and taken care of. Right now, we feel like an afterthought.

 

Alyssa Richardson, Student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

I definitely believe schools would have to secure safe transportation for everyone before I would feel comfortable attending school in person.

As a student, I recognize that the majority of my peers get to and from school using public transportation. This concerns me because I don’t feel certain that schools can monitor what goes on outside their buildings. How will schools ensure that students and staff are wearing masks on their trips to school? How will schools know the health statuses of all the residents of students’ households? Schools being totally oblivious to what is being transmitted outside of school hours worries me. I definitely believe schools would have to secure safe transportation for everyone before I would feel comfortable attending school in person.

I feel overwhelmed by school with distance learning. Every day, I find myself working 12+ hours straight, and I can feel the social and interactive imbalance. Students need smaller workloads, and more opportunities for social interaction in order to be successful. The entire abolishment of homework assignments may be a great long-term decision, as far as distance learning goes. I believe classwork alone will certainly meet academic expectations and may even result in students being more energized and willing to engage in class. Students that are drained from looking at a computer screen all day, being on Zoom for 8 hours straight, and working late, slowly begin to lose their desires to even participate in the distance learning experience. Students need more opportunities to just simply relax and talk with friends. That will certainly result in greater academic success.

 

Zulma Barrera, Ward 5 PAVE Parent Leader

I need to know that my choices will be supported by the school staff and that there are resources ready to help me and my kids learn and succeed in school.

I understand how much of an impact this pandemic has had on our world and that plans to adjust have been difficult for schools. What I ask is that my experience as a mother of three children, each with individual learning needs and demands also be recognized. It’s difficult to simultaneously manage multiple learning schedules, especially since one of my children has special needs. What I need is a partnership with the staff at my children’s schools. We’ve learned that schools will reopen and children with special needs will be among the first encouraged to return – I know that my children’s schools will need to communicate their reopening plans in a way that is accessible for me and my family. I need to know that the schools and classrooms will be cleaned regularly, and at the very least, I need options. I need to know that I can decide to keep my children at home, or I can choose to send them to school without incurring any negative consequences. I need to know that my choices will be supported by the school staff and that there are resources ready to help me and my kids learn and succeed in school. I know I am not the only parent going through a similar situation. I ask that our city leaders not forget about these unique challenges.

 

Luz Valera, Ward 1 PAVE Parent Leader

I understand that decisions are made with the best of intentions but in order for my family to feel safe in a world where we attend in-person school, I believe that it is most important for schools to be well resourced enough to build trust with families like mine that need a lot of support.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, navigating life and education for my children has been extremely difficult. To share a little bit about my family, we came to this country in December 2019. My daughters started their classes in January, and when this pandemic hit in March, their experiences in school were cut short, and they had to adjust to virtual learning at home. English is not our first language, so all my children are struggling to learn. When distance learning began, my girls were given the learning materials they needed, and we were able to connect to the internet. Since then, they haven’t missed a single day of class. However, I still wonder how I can better explain to my daughters who don’t speak English what is going on in their classes. I have tried to help them, but I also don’t speak English. During their distance learning classes, they cry and don’t want to participate. It is my impression that they simply do not understand their lessons. As a result, I reached an agreement with my children’s schools and teachers and decided it was best for my daughters to repeat their grade levels, but these past few months I’ve lived in fear of that decision because I have not seen them make real progress.

Since schools still needed updated medical records and physicals, I had to leave my home and take my girls to the doctor to be examined. It is there that we all were exposed to COVID-19. I understand that decisions are made with the best of intentions but in order for my family to feel safe in a world where we attend in-person school, I believe that it is most important for schools to be well resourced enough to build trust with families like mine that need a lot of support.

We tested positive for COVID-19, so my children will not be attending in-person school, but we still need all the information in a language we understand. It is so important that my daughters and other children like mine do not find themselves falling through the cracks.

 

Read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia. 

 

Feature photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer (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.

 

Notes

[1] D.C. Public Charter School Board. 2020. “Public Charter School Reopening Update.” DCPCSB. Available at: https://dcpcsb.org/public-charter-schools-reopening-update

[2] Truong, D. 2020. “Hundreds of Students Could Return To D.C. Public Schools In Coming Weeks.” DCist. Available at: https://dcist.com/story/20/09/28/small-groups-of-students-to-return-to-dc-schools/

[3] Stein, P. 2020. “D.C. Public Schools cancels plan to bring some students into classrooms Nov. 9.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-teachers-protest-school-reopening/2020/11/02/2fb57c14-1d03-11eb-ba21-f2f001f0554b_story.html

[4] District of Columbia Public Schools. 2020. “We believe that the best place to engage students in their education is in the classroom.” #ReopenStrong. Available at: https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/schedule/term2/

[5] The Kojo Nnamdi Show transcript. 2020. “Area Schools To Start In-Person Instruction, But Is It A Good Idea?” The Kojo Nnamdi Show. Available at: https://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2020-10-12/schools-to-start-in-person-instruction-but-is-it-a-good-idea

[6] To ensure the safety of staff and students, DCPS had guaranteed that all facilities would be updated – classroom spaces would meet social distancing requirements and air filters would be changed. Class sizes would also have been limited: PK3 classrooms could only have enrolled up to 8 students, PK4 and Kindergarten classrooms could have enrolled up to 10 students, and grades 1-5 could have enrolled up to 11. Cohorts would have had limited interaction with other cohorts, and students would have remained in the same classroom for much of the day, including lunch. If a staff member or student in the cohort were to test positive for the virus, the entire cohort would’ve been required to quarantine for two weeks. Protective equipment would also have been provided. Teachers would have been given face shields and masks while students would’ve been given masks daily. Temperatures would’ve also been taken daily.

The Washington Teacher’s Union held a vote the last week of October in which more than 90 percent of the 1,200 members who participated said they had “no confidence” in the reopening plan. Chancellor Ferebee and Elizabeth Davis, President of the Washington Teacher’s Union, have been negotiating an agreement to reopen schools for months, but are unable to come to an agreement. Among the sticking points is hazard pay. The union also wants any teachers, regardless of age or health, to be able to refuse to teach in-person whereas Chancellor Ferebee believes only teachers who are considered high-risk or are living with someone who is high-risk should be given the option.

[7] District of Columbia Public Schools. 2020. “Changes to School Reopening Plans.” #ReopenStrong. Available at: https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/updates/changes-to-school-reopening-plans/

[8] D.C. Public Charter School Board. 2020. “Public Charter School Reopening Update.” DCPCSB. Available at: https://dcpcsb.org/public-charter-schools-reopening-update

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.

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