Bowser has said she aims to offer all students the option to return to classrooms part time by Nov. 9 — when the second term begins — under what is commonly known as a hybrid schedule.
But before that date, she wants to offer small groups of students with high needs an opportunity for in-person learning. Some D.C. charter schools — including KIPP DC and Friendship, the city’s largest networks — are educating in person a few hundred children of essential workers and students with special-education needs. That has put the traditional school system on the spot: If KIPP DC and Friendship can do it, why can’t neighborhood schools?
“I think DCPS can do it, and I think DCPS should do it,” Bowser said this month about returning to schools.
The challenge of reopening schools — even for just small groups — is not unique to the District. Infection rates here have fallen to levels that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says would allow schools to reopen with “lower risks of transmission.” But teachers and staff members have resisted going back, and they question whether buildings are safe. Bowser said that the city needs to consider “workforce readiness” and that health metrics alone are not driving reopening decisions.
Most big-city districts also began the year with all-remote learning.
New York, the nation’s largest school system, is trying to offer in-person learning, but it has repeatedly delayed the opening date.
And in the D.C. suburbs, the school districts are entirely remote, most through at least the first quarter, which ends in early November. Schools in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties plan to stay remote through the first semester, which ends Jan. 29.
Bowser said Thursday that, based on the city’s current coronavirus data, schools can safely reopen with a hybrid model. She said the city has already acquired the necessary personal protective equipment to reopen school buildings and has a plan to inspect and update ventilation systems before Nov. 9.
“Hybrid learning can happen in Phase 2, and we are in Phase 2,” Bowser said. “We continue to work on our workforce readiness.”
The CDC advised that jurisdictions with fewer than 20 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days and with less than 5 percent of their coronavirus tests returning positive can reopen schools with a “lower risk of transmission.”
The District reported 7.24 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days and has a 2 percent test positivity rate. The numbers alone, though, don’t tell the complete story, and a health official said at a recent town hall that she is concerned that many of the District’s cases are unrelated to one another, which suggests community spread of the virus.
But as more and more commercial businesses in the nation’s capital reopen, more parents are becoming frustrated that schools are still shut down. On Tuesday, the city reopened its massive convention center with safeguards in place.
“Why is the convention center opening when the schools are still closed?” a parent, who called distance learning “completely inadequate,” asked on a telephone town hall with the Bowser administration as his young child could be heard shouting in the background. “If it’s okay to do that, why are the schools still closed?”
Even if schools are allowed to reopen for small groups before Nov. 9, it’s unclear how many campuses would open their doors. The school system gave its 115 principals the option of submitting a proposal detailing how they would reopen schools for small groups in the coming weeks. So far, just over a dozen have offered their plans, though they are still trickling in, school officials said.
Richard Jackson, who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership, said there is not widespread buy-in from principals yet. He said school leaders are angry that D.C. Public Schools seemingly put the onus on principals to reopen their buildings. He said principals are frustrated that the city has not yet checked school ventilation systems and do not trust that their buildings are ready for students. School officials confirmed that they will be checking every school’s HVAC system and will provide necessary upgrades by Nov. 9, though they could not say how many systems have been checked so far.
“This is a backdoor way of passing responsibility onto principals,” Jackson said. “If something goes wrong, they can say, ‘Oh, your local principal decided it.’ ”
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said teachers want the city to have a transparent system, letting communities know which ventilation systems have been checked and upgraded. She said that teachers want to return to school but that they want the school system to commit to more safeguards first.
The union is in the beginning stages of surveying its more than 4,000 teachers this month, but a spokesman said that it has identified at least 100 teachers who are interested in returning to classrooms for small-group learning and that he suspects there are many more.
Davis acknowledged that some teachers are firm in their refusal to return to school but that most want to work with the school system in good faith. The union held protests in July over a potential return to in-person learning in the fall. But Davis said that one protest in which mock body bags were dumped in front of the school system headquarters was “inappropriate” and was not associated with the union.
The decision to reopen schools “has to be based on something more than science,” Davis said. “The circumstances in D.C. — if we have a school that does not have proper ventilation — that building is not safe for children and teachers. . . . The CDC does not control the resources that the city provides to schools.”
Boswain Shaw, a special-education teacher at Ketcham Elementary in Southeast Washington, said that virtual learning is not working for his students and that some are participating in classes from their beds because they don’t have desks to work on.
Still, he said, he does not trust the city to properly prepare his school building and does not want to return to teaching yet. And, he said, he has a child in Prince George’s County Public Schools and could not return unless his son has a classroom to return to.
“I don’t feel comfortable coming back, but at this time, this virtual model is not beneficial for anyone,” Shaw said. “I don’t have the answers, but there has to be a better way.”
Although many parents want to continue with virtual learning, some across both sectors may be losing patience, with many charters indicating they will follow the school system’s lead and go into a full hybrid model only once the school system does.
Ta’Nikka Massey, a mother of three in Southeast, told The Washington Post earlier this year that she would opt to keep her children home if schools gave her the option to go in person in August. But now, she said, the health data looks better, and her oldest son, a high-schooler, is struggling with distance learning.
She said she is confident her eldest two children can follow social distancing guidelines and keep their masks on, so she would send them back to school. But she would probably keep her youngest, a fourth-grader, home and continue virtual learning with her.
“A lot of kids are not adjusting to learning from home,” Massey said. “They need to see their teachers. We can start reopening these schools.”