And the school system has informed principals that students cannot switch teachers in the fourth quarter, in an effort to maintain teacher-student relationships.
As of now, therefore, a District student who wants to return to in-person instruction will not be guaranteed a slot this academic year.
With coronavirus case numbers in the region dropping and vaccine availability rising, families whose children attend some of the city’s most affluent public schools are flooding city officials’ inboxes and pleading for more slots. But they are not alone. While the in-person programs in schools located in low-income neighborhoods are under-enrolled, demand is not spread evenly across grades.
Some elementary schools did not have the staffing to open in-person learning at certain grade levels, so entire classes were left out, even for students with high needs who were meant to have top priority. And many families have students at multiple schools, so parents said that some of their children are back at school and that others enrolled in charter schools are still at home.
In the traditional public school system, many high school students are in school buildings for only a few hours each week during the pandemic, and students say they want more class time.
Kyra Collins, an 18-year-old junior at Roosevelt STAY, said virtual learning has been difficult, with students and teachers talking over each other. She attends a school for students who have struggled in mainstream classrooms and thinks she and her classmates in remote classes have not received the individual attention they need.
Since February, she has attended in-person classes for a total of two hours a week for her health and English courses.
“I’d prefer to go to school more,” Collins said. “It is more helpful than a thousand kids on one computer yelling and screaming at the same time.”
In the charter sector, which has been slower to reopen and serves nearly 50 percent of the city’s public school population, many schools have been telling families that options for in-person learning will be limited this year and that if social distancing guidelines are not relaxed, schools could be reopening next academic year with a hybrid model.
“As a small school, we will be really lucky in the fall if we can even have 40 percent of our students in the building at the same time,” Raymond Weeden, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, said at a recent D.C. Public Charter School Board meeting.
Others, including KIPP DC and Friendship — the city’s two largest charter networks — plan to return up to 20 percent and 50 percent of their students, respectively, to classrooms in some way in March.
“The covid pandemic has created uncertainties, and it was understandable that for a limited period of time, access to public education would be compromised,” one parent, Neela Ghoshal, said at the charter board meeting. She is the mother of two young children whose charter school told families it would not offer extensive in-person learning for first-graders and above this academic year.
“But a year into the pandemic, that is no longer justifiable,” Ghoshal said.
Parents and teachers are pushing the city to vaccinate school staffers who are working remotely, viewing that as key to enabling more in-person learning.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said that reopening schools is not contingent on staffers being vaccinated and that vaccinations are just an extra layer of protection.
The school system has vaccinated more than 85 percent of the approximately 3,500 staff members who are working in school buildings during the pandemic. But some principals have acknowledged that without getting more of the staff to volunteer to return in person, their options are limited. The city has made vaccinations available for those who work in school buildings or have been assigned to in-person work.
“One significant hurdle to expanding in-person learning is that DCPS has no plan for vaccinating our teachers and staff who are teaching virtually,” the principal at Janney Elementary wrote in a letter to families, using the abbreviation for D.C. Public Schools. “We have a number of teachers and staff who would volunteer to report in-person … provided they have access to the vaccine.”
A Pew Research Center survey released this past week found that 59 percent of adults whose children are enrolled in school districts that are not yet open say that in-person instruction should wait until all teachers who want to be vaccinated have received their shots. Support for that is highest among Black adults, 80 percent of whom believe schools should delay in-person instruction until teachers have been vaccinated.
In D.C., parents started an online petition calling for the city to make vaccines available for all employees in schools. More than 800 people have signed it.
Many charter schools have said that space is one barrier to reopening. Erika Bryant, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Public Charter School, said that as long as the school is expected to follow social distancing guidance, the language-immersion charter network will need to use a hybrid model — even in the fall. The school plans to offer extensive in-person programming only for its prekindergarten and kindergarten students. Bryant said staff members have contracted the novel coronavirus, and she wants to accommodate employees’ concerns about returning.
“This whole process is a delicate balancing act,” Bryant wrote in an email. “Not only do we have to take into consideration our students and families’ needs, but we must also take into consideration the needs of our staff.”
Charter schools have been allocated federal aid that they could spend on additional staff members and different types of classrooms, which could allow them to educate more students in person. But school leaders have said that hiring additional qualified staff isn’t easy, especially when other districts in the region also are trying to hire.
The D.C. school system has outlined how it will spend its $80 million of federal aid, and it plans to put aside $9 million to support creative teaching models, including outdoor learning, during the pandemic. Ferebee has said schools will offer more-extensive summer school programs this year, in person and remotely.