When Principal Victorie Thomas emailed a survey to families at W.B. Patterson Elementary School in the fall asking if they would want to return to the school building when it opened in February, just 2 percent responded. Most said no.

Thomas wasn’t surprised by the low response. Family engagement was often low, and pre-pandemic communication frequently took place at drop-off and pickup times. But she knew that many children at Patterson were among the students in the District who needed in-person learning the most.

She had autistic students who, even with strong parent support at home, weren’t able to get the services they needed virtually. Others didn’t have adults at home who could help them navigate software and technical glitches. And some students had parents who worked all day, and were being supervised by middle and high school-aged siblings. Nearly 90 percent of Patterson students are considered at-risk for academic failure based on their families’ incomes.

So Thomas and her staff embarked on a communication and information blitz. They flooded the school’s social media pages and its academic platforms to tell parents about the reopening plan. Teachers called and texted parents and grandparents, sometimes pulling them aside after class if they spotted them helping their students during virtual learning.

Thomas held a schoolwide meeting for parents and sent out videos of the school and its new safety features. Teachers gave families live, virtual tours of the classrooms and hallways so they could see what their child’s day would look like.

“I wanted them to feel comfortable knowing what their students would experience inside,” said Thomas, who has led the school since 2012. “They wanted us to reassure them about the safety protocols and procedures we had in place.”

And families had a lot of questions. What happens if students show up without a mask, they asked. What happens if a teacher tests positive for the virus? Would students be tested before school starts?

“When we had problems or questions, they got back to us ASAP,” said Linda Perkins, who helps with child care for her three great-grandchildren, who are enrolled at Patterson.

In the end, 71 of the school’s 315 children signed up to return to the Southwest Washington campus, which has a predominantly Black student body. That’s a far smaller number than most schools in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, but far higher than almost any other school in wards 7 and 8. These are wards where parents are the most reticent to return to school, neighborhoods where trust in schools and government institutions is low and health outcomes are poor.

Ruby Hill was initially unsure if she would accept the in-person slot for her daughter. But she attended a schoolwide virtual meeting in January and took a virtual tour of the building. She said school leaders answered all her questions and she accepted the slot.

“My daughter is young, and she couldn’t stay focused with virtual learning,” said Hill, who works most days at a Dollar General and relies on her sixth-grader to help supervise her 4-year-old daughter. “I asked the school what precautions they were taking. I asked them how many kids would be in a class.”

The experiences at Patterson show the power that individual schools have in building relationships and confidence with families. But it also shows the significant hurdles that persist as the city attempts to equitably reopen school buildings. A majority of families who were offered slots still rejected them. Of the 71 families who signed up for the four days of in-person learning at Patterson, so far only 35 or so are regularly entering the school building.

Many are unable to return because they lack the immunizations required to enter the buildings. Youth vaccinations have plummeted during the pandemic, and nurses at Patterson are working with these families to schedule appointments at a nearby clinic.

One Patterson teacher assigned to teach five students in-person with special education needs was approved for medical leave, so the students in that class have been reassigned to another teacher’s virtual classroom, with no path yet to in-person learning. Seven fourth-graders were scheduled to return, but due to personnel issues, those students have remained virtual until Thomas can find a staffing solution.

As in-person learning continues, Thomas said, more families want to come back, and she has waiting lists in some classes. A few families who signed up no longer want to return, and Thomas has already filled their seats with other students. She has to make the difficult determination of when to give up slots for students who haven’t shown up yet so she can accommodate others.

And while they are answering families’ questions, teachers have their own uncertainties about returning.

LaGreta Pringle, a prekindergarten teacher, said that when she received her in-person teaching assignment, her first reaction was, “why me?” She had been wiping groceries for months and had “tremendous fear.” She asked Thomas questions about the safety precautions in the building and participated in a walk through. She signed up for the vaccine and, although she was not fully vaccinated by the time school reopened, she began to feel more comfortable.

“It’s a journey,” Pringle said. “You really have to go through that journey.”

Pringle discovered that parents had some of the same questions about enforcing social distancing and masks that she had. She said she built strong relationships with her families over the year. When they had technology issues, she would drive to their homes and deliver work for children to complete.

She answered their questions the best she could but never tried to convince them to return to school. That decision, she felt, was too personal.

Seven of her 11 students accepted slots. Three of the seven lack the required vaccinations, so they haven’t yet attended. Some families that remained virtual have called to ask how she feels being in the building and now want to attend. But like other classrooms, hers is at capacity.

“There are still parents that are apprehensive and  are not comfortable coming back, no matter how trusting the relationship is,” Pringle said. “There is still much unknown.” 

LaToya Mathews enrolled her third-grade son, Tyrone, in Patterson for the first time this academic year. His twin and two other siblings attend different schools. She considered Patterson, her assigned neighborhood school, “a last resort.” But while virtual learning was difficult and her son — who has special education needs — was having frequent meltdowns, she said, she built stronger relationships with the Patterson staff than she had with staff in his previous schools. That alone made her ready to send him back when the principal said the school was ready to reopen and offered him a slot.

“I felt he was in good hands,” she said. “When they called, she could barely get her sentence out before I said, ‘Yes, he’ll take it.’ ”

A photo caption in a previous version of this article misidentified social worker Alyce Hairston. The caption has been corrected.