D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Thursday that schools in the nation’s capital would start the 2020-2021 academic year all-virtual, a scenario that the city’s leaders had been trying to avoid.

The decision isn’t a surprise. Coronavirus infection numbers are on the rise in the D.C. region, and neighboring school districts in Maryland and Northern Virginia have already canceled plans for in-person classes in the fall, saying they will begin with distance learning.

But still, in a school district where most students qualify for free and reduced lunch and nearly half of the students are considered at-risk for academic failure, it wasn’t an easy decision. D.C. education leaders have stressed that there is no substitute for in-person learning and had been attempting to get students into classrooms for at least a few days a week. Two weeks ago, Bowser nearly unveiled a plan to bring students back to classrooms for a few days a week in the fall, but at the last minute she decided to delay the announcement.

“We are moving forward with an all-virtual start to the school year for students in pre-K through the 12th grade from Term 1 until November 6th,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. “We will continue to plan for in-person options for Term 2.”

The announcement comes as the Washington Teachers’ Union caps a week of protests, calling on the city to begin the school year with all-remote learning. On Monday, teachers delivered body bags to the school system’s headquarters to warn of the deaths they believe could occur if schools reopened. They also protested on the streets and in front of the home of Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of the D.C. public school system.

Many families — particularly from the city’s wards hit hardest by the virus — have said they did not want to return to school buildings in the fall. But other families have said that their children are falling behind and that they want the city to think of creative solutions to get students back in classrooms.

School leaders acknowledged that students still need adequate technology to participate in distance learning, and said that they would make sure every student had the necessary devices to fully engage with their fall coursework.

The mayor’s announcement does not apply to the city’s charter sector, which educates nearly 50 percent of the city’s public school students. Many charter schools — including the city’s two largest charter networks, KIPP DC and Friendship Public Charter School — have said they would also go all-remote. A few charter schools have said they will try to bring in some students for classroom instruction. Many private schools have also said they will begin the semester with students in classrooms.

During the announcement, top education officials laid out what virtual learning would look like in the fall — and depicted an academic day that was far more structured than it was in the spring.

Students across all grade levels are expected to have live instruction each day. Preschoolers would have 30 to 60 minutes per day, which would include a morning meeting, small-group activities and a snack with their teacher. Young elementary students would have about two hours of live instruction each day, and beginning in third grade, students would have between two and three hours.

Middle and high school students would have four to five hours of live instruction each day. Unlike the spring, school officials have said that they will take attendance each day.

“We are prepared to deliver a more consistent schedule for families,” Ferebee said. D.C. Public Schools “is prepared to have daily lessons to include social-emotional development activities to ensure that students are well and we continue to build our trusting relationships with our students and families.”

When asked if the city would allow students who needed a place to do their school work to use classrooms for virtual learning — an idea that education leaders have discussed — the mayor said they would need adults to supervise children to make that happen.

“If we don’t have teachers who want to come in-person, we would have to find another set of adults who want to come in-person,” Bowser said. “And we will, if the chancellor says that this is what we need for our kids.” 

While the union applauded the Bowser administration’s decision for virtual learning, some teachers and staff criticized the mayor’s suggestion that she would find adults to staff classrooms if teachers are unwilling to return.

Catrina Brown, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Noyes Elementary in Northeast Washington, said she was relieved by the mayor’s decision. She lives in Southeast Washington with her 75-year-old mother and her high-school-age daughter, who attends a D.C. school, and says Brown did not feel safe returning to in-person teaching.

Brown said she worked hard reaching her students in the spring, but still only 16 of her 50 students consistently showed up to virtual class. She is hopeful, though, that the attendance requirements in the fall will encourage more participation.

“It is important for me to teach Black, Brown and poor children in the nation’s capital,” Brown said. “But you cannot tell me that you will be able to ensure the safety of myself as well as the safety of my child.”

The effects of Bowser’s decision Thursday will trickle down to Metro, which announced this month that it planned to more than double rail and bus service starting mid-August in anticipation of the possibility of D.C. schools opening. Since mid-March, the transit agency has been running at about a third of the level of normal service.

The District does not have a school bus system, and students rely on the city’s public transit system — which they ride for free — to get to class. Most of the city’s public school students do not attend their assigned neighborhood school, with many traveling far distances to attend charter and traditional public schools outside their neighborhoods.

Beginning Aug. 16, Metro planned to start a phased increase that would ultimately lead to service of 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

The agency said Thursday that it will not pull back on its plans to increase rail and bus service because of Bowser’s decision, but the move will prompt Metro to skip running some bus trips it schedules just for the school system “as opposed to regular route service,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

For parent Emily Roderer, the mayor made the right call. If given the option, she would not have sent her two elementary-age children back to school. Distance learning was hard, Roderer said, but she managed and doesn’t want to risk the health of her kids’ teachers or that of her elderly mother. Roderer, who is self-
employed and has scaled back her work during the pandemic, said she has offered to watch one of her children’s classmates, whose mother will be unable to guide her through distance learning.

“I thought this was 100 percent the right decision. We were not planning on going back,” Roderer said. “I basically did not do my own work in the spring. I just shepherded my kids from activity to activity.”