The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Low attendance and covid-19 have ravaged D.C.’s poorest schools. Fall will be about reconnecting.

Chancellor  Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, said he expects schools to have a “gradual ramp up” to full in-person learning. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, said he expects schools to have a “gradual ramp up” to full in-person learning. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Students at Coolidge High School, many of them recent immigrants, aren’t logging into English class because they now have day jobs in restaurants and landscaping.

At Ballou High School in Ward 8, where the death rate is the city’s highest, multiple students have lost multiple relatives to the novel coronavirus, distracting them from their studies.

And at a Northwest Washington school that mostly serves black and Hispanic students from low-income families, a teacher said several of her students have been out sick, suspected of having the virus.

The coronavirus has torn through neighborhoods in the nation’s capital with unequal ferocity, and the city’s schools reflect that. It has magnified existing disparities and educational outcomes and unearthed new challenges.

School administrators needed weeks to update their contact lists as they attempted to find phone numbers, addresses and social media accounts for students whose families frequently move and change phone numbers. It took the city more than six weeks to get the bulk of students the technology they needed to immerse in distance learning, with a few still unable to log on. Meanwhile, schools have needed to transform into food and virtual social service hubs.

Teachers say their students are falling behind, and academics are just one of their many mandates.

“When I am missing two thirds of my kids each day, there is a ceiling to how well it can go,” said Jonathan Faber, who teaches English and social studies to recent immigrants at Coolidge High. “But I am proud of what we have done and how the school is responding. We’re making the most of a bad situation.”

As the city’s traditional public school system enters its final weeks of the academic year, educators are taking stock of what has worked and what hasn’t this spring. The lessons they learn will inform remote learning this summer and fall. In an interview, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee described what he expects to be a “gradual ramp-up” to full, in-person learning. City leaders envision summer school that may be a mixture of remote and in-person learning. They want to bring at least some students to start the next academic year earlier, though not everyone.

They caution, too, that schools should be prepared to open, then abruptly close and switch back to remote learning if people connected to the school become infected with the virus.

And when students do finally return to the classrooms, Ferebee said the immediate focus will be on students’ mental health, addressing the trauma that many students have experienced during the health emergency.

The school system receives regular reports of students who have been impacted by the virus. It will tear through entire households, leaving adults quarantined from the children, Ferebee said. A “significant number” of students, according to the chancellor, have been ill, unable to attend their online courses.

“It’s traumatic. . . . Students have experienced trauma and stress,” Ferebee said in an interview. “It is really important for us not to just dive in to instruction without taking time to reconnect with our students.”

'Another barrier'

The attendance records look bleak. At an elementary school in Northeast Washington, just 50 percent of fourth- and fifth-graders are logging on to watch the PowerPoints that their teacher spends hours building each weekend. A special-education teacher in Northwest Washington said she’s struggling to schedule individualized virtual meetings with her students, many of whom have working parents who do not speak English and have never before used the school system’s Microsoft platform.

Sean Perin’s fifth-grade students at Garfield Elementary in Southeast Washington have parents who report to work each day at restaurants, stores and medical facilities, leaving their children with older siblings or relatives during the day. He said he has heard that at least two of his students have lost relatives to the virus.

Each day, fewer than half of his 38 students log on to his live online course. He said some students watch a recorded version of his class on their own time. He is in contact with others who are not fully participating in academics.

“This is another barrier for them,” Perin said.

The Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed its teachers last month to determine student participation. Fifty-seven percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded — around half of the teacher workforce — said less than half of their students are participating. Teachers at more affluent and more selective schools said attendance has been strong during remote learning.

Like individual teachers, the school system is tracking how many students have picked up academic packets from their schools or logged on to any of the school systems online.

“Ninety-six percent of our students have engaged in some way,” Ferebee said. “And those are the key words here: ‘in some way.’ . . . Instead of logging into a learning session, a student may be doing virtual meetings with a counselor or a school psychologist. When we talk about engagement, we’re not just talking about teaching and learning.”

Everyone acknowledges that students are falling behind. But Ferebee said he does not expect to hold struggling students back a grade level; he believes that could be more detrimental in the long run. Instead, city officials are looking at potential ways to give students more learning time, including Saturday school or extended school days.

Ferebee said he is also exploring other ways to mitigate the psychological and academic damage. One possibility: Having students return to school and be assigned for at least some time with their old teachers and classmates, a practice known as “looping.” This would allow students to return to familiar classrooms and review old material.

“For certain,” Paul Kihn, the city’s deputy mayor for education, said at a community meeting last week, “we are going to need to build in additional time.”

Different paths, big gaps

When D.C. Public Schools closed on March 13, the school system promised very little. Every student, the chancellor said, would receive a comprehensive packet filled with grade-level work, which could be accessed online or in print. Teachers would be available to field students’ questions each day.

But beyond that, it was up to teachers and schools to decide how to implement remote learning. The result: Distance learning looks different on every D.C. campus.

Some students’ days are packed with live, virtual classrooms and have schedules that resemble their typical academic days. Other students rely on prerecorded PowerPoint lessons and communicate with school staff if they have questions, usually in texts or phone calls.

Seven weeks in, everyone, however, seems to agree: Distance learning is improving.

“The technology disparities were really glaring, so the first couple of weeks it was just about making contact with our families and seeing that they are okay,” said Rachel Thomas, a fifth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Bunker Hill Elementary in Northeast Washington. “I do feel more confident in my delivery of the material now, but that took until week 5.”

Ferebee said he has stressed that schools should be flexible and allow students to access materials outside of typical school hours. Students are not being penalized for work they fail to complete.

Laura Fuchs, a history teacher at H.D. Woodson High, said after talking with her students, she opted against doing live classes. She posts PowerPoint presentations online and has students complete the daily assignments they would during her normal class periods.

Most students hand-write their assignment, take a photo of it and send it to her via email or text. She said a little more than half have turned in an assignment during remote learning. She teaches five periods, around 100 students, and each day attempts to connect with every student in one of her classes. Last week, she heard from a few students who reported that people close to them had fallen ill and died.

At this point, if they want to raise their grade, that’s great,” Fuchs said. “But I’m just making sure that someone has talked to them.”

Christopher Bergfalk, a fifth-grade teacher at Payne Elementary, said he has high attendance for his daily English classes. But it requires him to craft up to 50 texts checking in with families each week to coordinate students to get logged on. He has also matched his more than 20 students with volunteer reading tutors.

Some teachers said that online learning has been beneficial for a few of their students, who are now able to work at their own paces. The challenge for many schools is simply being able to connect. The pandemic has stressed the importance of having personal relationships with each family, educators said, something that many schools lacked.

“The art of human connection has come to the front,” said William Massey, principal of H.D. Woodson High in Northeast Washington. His school has created spreadsheets tracking who has connected with each student and the best way to contact them.

Teachers said the school system had outdated technology and didn’t incorporate technology well into the classroom. This has forced them to catch up.

“I anticipate [D.C. schools] will be stronger in how we teach and learning,” Ferebee said. “We will take a lot of what we learned about learning from home and incorporate that into our structure.”

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