The first day classrooms opened last week at Johnson Middle School in Southeast Washington, just one student showed up. By Friday, nine did.

That was far fewer than the 49 who had said they would return to in-person learning two days a week. And even fewer than the 133 students that Principal Dwan Jordon had identified as struggling and invited to return.

It was a scene that unfolded in schools across the city’s lower-
income neighborhoods. They were operating under capacity with dismal attendance — a challenge exacerbated by bad weather and logistically complicated schedules necessary to accommodate the 9,500 students returning to classrooms and more than 40,000 students who remained home doing virtual learning.

Teachers already anxious about returning were frustrated by the low numbers in their classrooms, with some arguing that it made little sense to open school buildings for so few students, to implement a plan they feared could make virtual learning worse for everyone else.

But Jordon was hopeful. He said he had contacted all the families whose children were supposed to be there.

Some lacked the proper medical documents and child immunizations required to return, and school staff members were working with them. He was confident that as parents saw other students in classrooms, they would want their children to join, too. His school had nearly 40 teachers and support staff members in the building, giving the school the ability to grow its in-person learning program.

“I’m confident we will get to our [student] goal,” Jordon said. “We have some people who, once they see that this is going well, they are going to want to be part of this. And we want to remain open to that possibility.”

The D.C. school system had room for 15,000 of its 52,000 students across all grade levels. Fewer than 10,000 of those seats are filled. But despite operating under capacity, the District’s partial return to classrooms still marks the region’s first attempt at a districtwide school reopening, with more jurisdictions expected to follow in the coming weeks.

While schools in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods had waiting lists, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sent out a robocall Thursday evening to the school system’s families informing them that there were slots available for in-person learning and that they could still sign up.

The majority of the system’s students are Black and Hispanic, from low-income families, and the majority of students returning to in-person learning are students of color identified as having high needs.

“I also want to encourage more families to sign up for this opportunity to return to school in person,” Bowser said on the robocall. The mayor noted on the call the safety features in buildings and said that the city had prioritized coronavirus vaccinations for teachers. Staff members who returned to classrooms could receive their first shot last week, and will receive their second dose later this month. “I am proud of the plans we put in place,” Bowser said.

The roster of students returning was higher at Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast Washington, but attendance was still low. Just 21 of the expected 61 students came to school the first day. On Friday, 39 were there. But Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger also saw reasons for hope. Some of the children with the highest needs showed up, and she had students sitting in classrooms Friday who hadn’t logged into their virtual learning classes since December.

She believed more families would appear, and be on time, and reminded parents of the staggered arrival times based on grade level. Even the young children were adhering to the mask requirements, and Riddlesprigger said they were paying attention to the visual reminders posted around campus to socially distance.

The first day, some students wanted to take naps midday like they did at home, and the school had to review routines and school-day structures with the students.

Parents said their children were happy to be back in the school building.

“We’re only three days in,” Riddlesprigger said. “But students we hadn’t seen since December, they now have a consistent place to go to and engage in.”

Already a class in each of five elementary schools has been sent home to quarantine for 14 days — and return to remote instruction — because an individual tested positive last week.

Teachers returned to school buildings as the dispute between the city and the teachers union continued. The city requested a temporary restraining order against the union to prohibit it from planning a strike. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

The union has said it believes the city called back more teachers to return — 1,800 of 4,000 teachers — than were needed.

“Some of the union building reps texted me directly because they were outraged for having so many teachers at school when so few students showed up,” said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

She said in an interview that the loudest complaints from the first week were about the small class sizes and the frustrations that came with teaching students in classrooms and at home at the same time.

At Ketcham, teaching both sets of students meant those in class were wearing headphones, facing their laptops and listening as their teacher addressed the classroom learners and at-home learners simultaneously. The students at school, however, were able to receive help from their teachers in person as they completed assignments.

That model helps to ensure that more students can be taught by their originally assigned teachers and that virtual class sizes do not grow too big to accommodate the small in-person class sizes required by health guidelines.

Some students are doing all-virtual learning from their classrooms, supervised by an aide.

At Johnson Middle, two teachers, one a special education instructor, were teaching a sixth-grade class Friday. The teachers were working in two separate classrooms, teaching about six students in person and the rest virtually. On Friday morning, one student was alone with the special education teacher, giving the child the individualized attention that is required by her special education plan.

Rachel Thomas, a middle school teacher at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens in Northwest Washington, said teaching the children in front of her and those at home at the same time has been an adjustment. She said she fears that her instruction isn’t as strong as it could be if she were teaching just one way or the other.

“My kids are showing a higher level of patience than I am,” she said. So far, only a handful of students have shown up in person.

Some of the challenges of trying to reopen schools have affected families who remained at home with virtual learning.

At School Without Walls at Francis Stevens elementary school, a first-grade teacher, whose request to remain virtual was denied, went on leave, according to parent Alicia Swenson O’Brien. As a result, her daughter didn’t have a teacher last week and was left with prerecorded lessons and assignments.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s another disruptive week.”

Parents interviewed last week whose children were offered a place in a classroom felt good about their decision to accept the slot.

Shavon Collier sat outside Ketcham Elementary cradling her first-grade son, who was sad to be leaving her after so many months together. But he struggled to focus at home, and she attended all the school’s virtual sessions about reopening and felt knowledgeable and confident about the safety protocols. She also sent her three older children back to school buildings last week.

And despite the separation anxiety, she said her youngest son has rated his days at school with a thumbs-up.

“He’s having a great time,” Collier said.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Southeast Washington, 5-year-old Cahlil was so excited Friday as he matched tiles with letters to their correct space on an alphabet chart that he couldn’t sit down while he completed the assignment.

“I just found the K, that was so easy,” he announced to himself. “I’m doing very great. This is fun.”