Elsewhere in the region, school districts are moving forward cautiously. In Arlington, which has had some students with disabilities in classrooms since November, Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán will present his plans to bring other students back at a board meeting this week. Alexandria hopes to return some very young students and those with disabilities later this month.
Next week others are scheduled to make decisions affecting tens of thousands of students. Loudoun County’s public schools, all remote since mid-December, will decide whether to change metrics determining whether and when it can return youngsters to in-person learning.
In Maryland’s Montgomery County, the school board is expected to consider next week whether health data will allow it to move forward with a plan to phase in a return of students starting Feb. 1. Both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have been 100 percent online this year.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said that individual schools are finalizing their reopening plans and learning will look different on every campus depending on demand and student needs. Some schools plan to use a hybrid model, where students would be in classrooms part of the week and at home the rest.
Other schools will have students on campus full time. And some middle and high schools — where staffing is more challenging because of the multiple subjects and class periods led by different teachers — will have students come into buildings for in-person counseling, individualized academic support and extracurricular activities. Every school is expected to serve at least 25 percent of its student body in person.
The school system has not yet told teachers whether they will be working in person, nor has it started to offer slots in classrooms to parents. That is expected to begin next week, Ferebee said.
The city’s push to reopen schools comes as parent demand for in-person instruction remains below 50 percent, according to a December school system survey.
In Wards 7 and 8 — areas with the highest concentrations of poverty that also have been hit hard by the virus — 70 and 64 percent of elementary students’ families, respectively, want to remain entirely virtual, according to the survey. By comparison, 30 percent of elementary school families in Ward 3, the wealthiest of the city with a much lower covid-19 death rate, want to remain all-virtual. The demand for in-person learning is lower for middle and high school parents. About 15,000 families — the school system has 52,000 students, many of them siblings — participated in the survey.
“My daughter and son will not be going back to school,” said Tasha McNeeley, a resident of Southwest Washington who said she does not trust the school system to keep her family safe and will not trust the vaccine until it is shown to be effective in her community.
McNeeley lost her job working at the city’s soccer stadium during the pandemic and — since obtaining Internet service and computers for her children in the fall — has been able to supervise her children during distance learning.
“They will be learning from home,” she said.
Ferebee said that while demand is uneven across the city, families of children with high levels of need — students who are homeless, English language learners, special education, or whose families receive public assistance — want in-person instruction. The school system is serving more than 1,400 students in school buildings where they participate in virtual learning under the supervision of adults. About 90 percent of these students, according to Ferebee, are in the high-need categories. Attendance has been low and inconsistent, however, and more than a dozen classrooms have been closed temporarily after someone in the class tested positive for the virus.
“Every child is different and every circumstance is not the same,” Ferebee said. “There are people who can stay home and support remote learning and earn [an] income, but everyone does not have that opportunity. And I’d like to see more people recognize that.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Ferebee have unsuccessfully attempted to reopen schools multiple times this academic year, failing to earn family and teacher support of their plans. But this is the first time the city has attempted to bring students and teachers back to classrooms since it struck a deal last month with the Washington Teachers’ Union on how to reopen schools. The deal sets safety measures and teaching requirements for each open building.
City officials are hoping the agreement makes more teachers comfortable returning. Still, the vast majority of teachers are not confident that it is safe to return to the city’s school buildings, according to Joe Weedon, a spokesman for the union. Ferebee said 7 percent of the city’s teacher workforce volunteered for in-person learning. If student demand exceeds the number of volunteer teachers, Ferebee said the school system would bring back teachers who do not have medical or other in-person exemptions.
Bowser announced this week that the city plans to begin vaccinating day-care and school workers on Jan. 25, although she said reopening will not be linked to vaccinations. Staff members scheduled to work in school buildings in February will be prioritized for the vaccine. But vaccinations will not be required for staff members to work in person.
“Children can’t wait. They’ve already lost so much,” Bowser said.
At C.W. Harris Elementary in Ward 7, the principal told members of the school reopening committee last month that only 30 families of the school’s 250 students initially participated in a survey on whether they wanted to return. Of those, 40 percent said they were interested in returning to the school building in some capacity. Sixty percent said they wanted their children to continue with online learning exclusively.
On the other side of the city, at Lafayette Elementary — a school of more than 950 students in Ward 3 — about 75 percent of families in each grade who participated in the survey said they wanted to return to in-person learning, according to the survey shared with families. The school’s principal told families that Lafayette would not be able to accommodate everyone.
Parents who want to return to school have been increasingly vocal in recent weeks, organizing and circulating a petition to city leaders. Catrin Morris, mother of an eighth-grader in the school system who lives in Ward 3, said that if the city delivers on its safety promises and the measures in schools are adequate, it’s time for families to have the option to return. She said she does not think she and other families are advocating for an unsafe return to school.
“All of her friends feel the same; she hates [virtual] school,” Morris said. “And this is a kid who loves school normally.”
About one-third of the city’s 60 charter networks have had some students in buildings since the fall, though charter leaders say many are not ready to reopen.
At KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network that serves more than 7,000 students — only 38 percent of families were interested in returning to school, according to a survey administered just before Thanksgiving. Forty-five percent said they would not return; 18 percent said they were unsure.
The charter network has been serving 600 students in person once a week and does not plan to expand the program before the end of February.
At Friendship, the city’s second-largest network, 300 students — most of whom are struggling with distance learning or are the children of essential workers — have been attending in-person classes four days a week since September. The school has a 75-person waiting list for this program but does not plan to expand its in-person learning options until the mayor reviews health metrics ahead of the school system’s February reopening date.
“Friendship is prepared to guarantee all families a high-quality 100 percent virtual option and, if the city deems it safe following their review of health statistics, will extend options to families for hybrid, partially in-person learning in our school buildings,” Friendship spokeswoman Candice Burns said.
Burnice Cain, president of the PTA at Houston Elementary in Ward 7, is out of work as a bartender and is able to help her 7-year old daughter with distance learning. She said her daughter has asthma and, while being out of school, has hardly needed her inhaler. She plans to keep the child home in February and said that most families at Houston, which serves many African American and low-income children, plan to do the same.
But she said some parents need to go to work, or have students who are struggling with online learning.
“Families should be able to opt in,” she said. “If you have a dire situation, you have to.”
A previous version of this report misstated the last name of Arlington Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán.
Donna St. George and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.