By comparison, Ward 3, the wealthiest ward in the city, is increasing capacity by 1,705 seats. Ward 6, a diverse ward which is home to the wealthy Capitol Hill area, is adding 956 seats, with more than 90 percent of them at the elementary level.
School system officials say these are preliminary numbers for the fourth term and that they are expected to increase in the coming weeks.
The public school system left much of the decision-making of how to expand in-person learning options for the fourth quarter to principals. The chancellor directed schools to meet demand but said no school was required to expand its in-person offerings for the term.
It was on principals to determine how many more families wanted to return this month, which staff members to bring back to the school building, and whether campuses would need to switch from six feet of social distancing to the newly recommended three feet to meet demand.
The school system said that the mismatch of additional seats in wards is largely driven by demand and that, based on surveys given to families in the fall, most schools are providing seats to all who want them. But the chancellor said staffing is also a hindrance and that many teachers are not yet returning to school buildings. In February, schools were directed to reopen with at least 25 percent of their students, though many schools did not meet this target.
“Bottom line, we are meeting demand at most schools in Term 4, with more than 80 percent of schools meeting their families’ interest for in-person learning,” said Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee. “For schools that are unable to offer in-person programming across all grades, it largely comes down to teacher leave accommodations.”
The school system has not released any data on waitlists or demand for fourth-quarter in-person learning.
“There’s no way; there’s got to be more families that want to go back,” said Maurice Cook, founder and executive director of Serve Your City, a community organization. “There’s a breakdown. Communication is a big piece of it. Relationships are a big piece of it.”
Across the country, Black, Hispanic and Asian communities have been more hesitant to return to school buildings. Mistrust in government institutions is high, and many of these communities have been hit hardest by the coronavirus and have said they feel unsafe returning.
That has held true in the District. When schools first reopened for in-person learning in February, families in the poorest ward rejected offers for an elementary school spot at twice the rate of families in the wealthiest one, according to city data.
City leaders said that once they reopened buildings, schools with open seats slowly saw students trickle into classrooms as the weeks went on and families saw what in-person learning looked like.
In all, the school system brought in about 10,000 students for the third quarter, with many middle- and high-schoolers in school buildings just a few hours a week. While White students are overrepresented in third-quarter in-person seats, school system data shows that the majority of students who returned are Black or Hispanic students who meet one of the categories that the chancellor said should be prioritized for returning.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has said she expects schools in the traditional public and charter sectors to reopen full time with all teachers in their classrooms in the fall.
Giving principals authority to make decisions about offering more in-person seats for the new quarter is a dramatic shift in approach from the fall, when the school system was criticized for locking principals out of reopening discussions and plans to reopen schools in November ultimately failed.
Richard Jackson — who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for principals and mid-level leadership in the city school system — said principals are facing different pressures at different schools. At schools in low-income neighborhoods serving Black and Hispanic students, principals are at the forefront of building confidence in reopening plans and educating families about the coronavirus and vaccines.
He hopes the city has an intensive citywide strategy this summer to help principals continue to work on building this trust.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the city that are more White and affluent, principals are facing significant pressure from families to open up more slots for students. At Lafayette Elementary in Northwest Washington — the largest elementary school in the city — most of the 900 students in the school are returning, with the school adopting a hybrid schedule that allows students to learn in person most days of the week.
“When there are uncertainties, they have passed it on to principals and said, ‘Okay, you figure it out,’ ” Jackson said. “This has been the most stressful year ever for principals.”
But the number of seats being added do not only reflect demand. Some parents want their children to return but cannot send them back because there is no aftercare being provided and they are unable to pick up their children immediately after school.
Some schools are not offering any in-person instruction at certain grade levels because they can’t staff those classes. While there is a formal process that teachers can apply for to receive leave or accommodations, much of the decisions on who needs to return has fallen on principals, according to Jackson.
He said principals have been put in a tough spot. If a principal tries to force a teacher to teach in-person who does not want to return and that teacher quits or goes on leave, then the principal is left with one less teacher — even to teach virtually.
School officials said the system has not made any midyear teaching hires.
While teachers have access to vaccinations, the union said that some teachers have child-care issues that prevent them from returning to classrooms or have mistrust in the school system’s reopening plans.
Louise Jones, principal at McKinley Technology middle and high school, said she would be able to offer more in-person seats if she had more staff members willing to return. One teacher, for example, could not return because of child-care issues. The teacher would have quit if she did not remain virtual, and Jones decided it was better to have the teacher teach remotely than not at all.
Jones said in-person attendance was low during the third quarter, in part, because most of the students were there just once a week and were often learning virtually under the supervision of a teacher who could help them.
She is revamping the in-person program for the fourth quarter by bringing more students with high needs into the school building four days a week. She uninvited students who signed up but scarcely showed up last quarter and is bringing in other students who want the slots, expanding the in-person program by 30 students.
“I’m comfortable with it, because I feel like I know what’s best with the staff that I have,” Jones said. “But I also know that you walk a fine line. I have no doubt that if I made the wrong decision, I don’t know who would be in my corner.”