The city’s charter schools, which educate more than 45 percent of the District’s public school students, have largely opted against following the school system’s reopening schedule. Public schools are opening for up to 15,000 students next week, but charter leaders said they are waiting until virus numbers drop in the city, teachers are fully vaccinated or more families are interested in returning.
Some charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded, said they are making preparations to reopen and will be ready in late February or March.
A number of charters, including the city’s two largest networks, opened in the fall as learning hubs for supervised virtual learning and tutoring, taking this step before the school system did. But since then, most of these schools have not dramatically expanded the number of students served or started offering in-person instruction from teachers.
“I don’t think we have the staffing, and I don’t think we have the family appetite to pull it off,” said Raymond Weeden, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast Washington, a high school that has been all virtual since March.
The charter sector, with 66 charter school networks and 128 campuses, has attempted to strike a balance between working with the mayor and acting autonomously.
Half of the campuses have opened their buildings to students in some form, according to the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Only one charter school that is all virtual plans to start a hybrid in-person learning model on Feb. 1 — the same day D.C. Public Schools says it will begin in-person instruction for students who were offered and accepted slots. Six more are expected to expand their offerings by the end of the month.
In all, 2,505 students in the charter sector — about 5 percent of all charter students — received some form of learning in a school building in January, according to data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
Some of these students entered school buildings once a week to receive extra academic help or mental health services. A few were in classrooms full time, learning from teachers in person. And many were completing their virtual learning in classrooms under the supervision of nonteaching staff. Briya Public Charter School brought some of its preschoolers back to learn outside.
By comparison, school officials say 900 elementary students were doing remote learning under adult supervision in D.C. Public Schools buildings in January. A few hundred more of the school system’s 52,000 students were eligible for some in-person programs, including high school job training courses and outdoor activities such as gardening club.
“There’s a number of factors going into these decisions,” said Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter Board, which oversees the charter sector. “Charters have been thinking about what works best for their community.”
The city’s two largest charter networks — KIPP DC and Friendship — enroll more than 20 percent of the District’s charter school students and have been bringing back hundreds of students to school buildings since the fall.
Friendship is bringing in more than 350 of its 4,000 students for in-person tutoring and virtual learning supervision a few times a week, prioritizing students of essential workers and students who may have critical needs and have struggled with distance learning.
KIPP DC is serving 412 of its 7,000 students in person each week for academic support. There are about 200 staff members who go into KIPP buildings to serve lunches, maintain the buildings, and supervise and teach students in person.
Adam Rupe, spokesman for KIPP DC, said that just one-third of families said in a December survey that they are interested in returning to school buildings.
He said the network plans to expand its in-person program offerings in March.
Most of KIPP’s students live in Wards 7 and 8 — predominantly Black wards with high concentrations of poverty — and the network’s survey results roughly mirror the school system’s results in those wards.
“When cases were in an upward trend, it didn’t feel like the right thing to be doing to ask our staff and family to return,” Rupe said. “We try to keep a close eye on what DCPS is doing, and it has been a moving target.”
It’s unclear how many coronavirus cases have been connected to the charter schools. While the city posts the number of cases detected in traditional public schools, they do not do the same for charters. The charter board also does not collect this data, and the District’s health department said in a statement that it “does not release identifying information or details of case or cluster investigations.”
In December, Bowser announced $10 million in grants for charter schools to help alleviate reopening costs. The application period has not started yet; the grants would reimburse schools for money spent.
Charter school staff and teachers working in person became eligible to receive their first dose of the vaccine this week.
The Sojourner Truth School, a small charter in its first year of operation, halted in-person instruction in October after staff discovered two asymptomatic cases during routine surveillance testing in late October and had to quarantine everyone. It reopened in January to provide academic help to 10 students about once a week in person. The school had started the school year with 20 students every day of the week.
Justin Lessek, founder of school, said he does not believe the two cases were connected and is confident the strategies to ensure no one spread the virus on campus worked, but the school decided to go all virtual through the holidays so students and staff could have a steady routine.
“Now that the vaccine is so real, we are doing more to try and align with that,” said Lessek, who along with some of his staff members working in person received his first dose of the vaccine this week.
The city is also vaccinating school system teachers and staff, with more than 400 employees who will be working in person next week receiving the first of the two required doses on Tuesday night.
Private school employees are not part of this priority group, angering them because so many private schools have been open for months.
At Meridian Public Charter School in Northwest Washington, head of school Matt McCrea said he is waiting until case numbers are lower before he expands his in-person offerings. The school provides some in-person services to 90 of its roughly 640 students, most of whom are the children of essential workers, English language learners or special education students.
And at Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest Washington, founder Karen Dresden said the school, which has been all virtual, will begin to invite some students who need extra academic support to a learning hub four days a week on campus at the end of next month. Three parents who had children at the school died of covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, and she said most of her families are not ready to return.
“It is hard to make decisions to bring students back when it hasn’t gotten better — it’s gotten worse,” Dresden said. “We are not offering in-person services because we feel pressure to do it, but because we feel it’s the right thing to do.”