The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. schools prepare for virtual learning and work to close digital divide.

Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, speaks during the daily coronavirus response briefing in May.
Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, speaks during the daily coronavirus response briefing in May. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The District’s top education officials made a final push Wednesday to encourage parents to enroll their children in school ahead of the start of the academic year next week. Enrollment is lagging, they said, and they attribute much of the decline to parents not completing annual forms during the pandemic.

Parents must enroll their children in school even though classes will be conducted virtually, they said.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and her top health and education officials — D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and Health Director LaQuandra S. Nesbitt — held an education-focused news conference Wednesday, relaying information that families need to know before the academic year begins remotely Monday.

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The city has experienced an “unprecedented decrease” in vaccination rates, and parents should make appointments at a school-based health center — located in most of the city’s neighborhood high schools — to get their children vaccinated, Nesbitt said.

If students do not have the proper technology to participate in remote learning, they should call their schools, Ferebee said.

“We know that our students are entering a school year like no other,” he said. “And it’s critical that we spend a lot of time developing relationships with our students. . . . We will spend the first few days ensuring those relationships are established early on.”

During the news conference, students wearing masks were coming in and out of the Ida B. Wells Middle School lobby, picking up computers. A city survey found that 60 percent of respondents lacked adequate technology at home. The city has struggled to connect with some families, and the school system does not have a full picture of who needs technology in part because of low enrollment numbers. The chancellor has committed to providing a device and Internet access to every student in need.

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Barbara J. Bazron, head of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health, announced a program to provide mental health support to parents during the prolonged school closures. Parents can call a hotline staffed 24/7 by eight mental health clinicians. These clinicians can connect parents to free, individual sessions. The agency will also host a support group on Wednesdays for parents, with each week focused on a different topic.

“In some quarters, it’s been called covid anxiety,” Bazron said in an interview. “And that’s related to all the stressors that parents in particular are really experiencing as they attempt to balance a whole host of responsibilities.”

Bazron said her agency is increasing the number of mental health clinicians it employs in traditional public and charter schools from 114 to 161 people to serve students.

School leaders stressed that attendance is mandatory in the fall. Students must log on daily to the online platform Canvas each day between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. to be counted present. Completing assignments and participation in real-time classes will also be used to gauge student participation.

“It is very important to us that parents understand that schools are in session in Washington, D.C.,” Kihn said.

Bowser’s venue for the news conference, Ida B. Wells Middle, is a campus in Northwest Washington that opened last academic year and serves a large immigrant population.

Ferebee said that once school begins, teachers would, as usual, introduce new academic material to students in the first weeks. But he said there would also be a “Living Through History” program, which would create space for students to reflect on this moment in history — both the pandemic and the protests calling for racial justice unfolding across the country.

School leaders fear that stricter lunch program eligibility would make it harder for students to eat

Kihn also discussed changes to the federally operated school lunch program, which will have more restrictions in the fall than it did in the spring and summer. Students who attend a charter campus must pick up meals at the charter school or network they attend. Students who attend a traditional public school must pick up meals at a campus within the school system.

Kihn reminded families that the current Kids Ride Free cards — which allow students to ride city buses and trains free — expire on Sept. 29. He said new cards have been sent to schools, which will then distribute them to families.

“We want to be ready for the second term if health conditions allow us to begin our hybrid, in-person instruction,” Kihn said. “Kids belong in schools, and we are making every effort to ensure that we are ready to be back in school.”

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