The reasons are varied, including immunocompromised children and relatives, fear of the delta variant, skepticism that schools are safe, mistrust of coronavirus vaccines and a preference for virtual learning.
“I am not sending them back in August,” one parent said, according to a report compiled by the charter network that included interviews with families. “If I have to continue to school them from home or do another program or virtual school I will do it.”
KIPP DC surveyed families in June to gauge how they felt about returning and found that 47 percent of families said they were unlikely or unsure about returning to school buildings in the fall. But most of these families also said that they trusted the school and that there was nothing else KIPP could do to make them feel safe.
“Our posture is in-person learning five days a week is ideal,” said Andhra Lutz, a KIPP DC administrator who would head the virtual program. “We are trying to get as much information out to families as possible while still respecting them. We are not forcing them into anything.”
Officials at KIPP are asking the D.C. Public Charter School Board — the mayoral-appointed panel charged with overseeing the charter sector — to approve a robust virtual academy for a few hundred students, based on families’ initial expression of interest.
Students would be allowed to enroll in the virtual option if they had at least a 90 percent attendance record and made academic progress during remote learning last year.
School officials want the virtual program to continue beyond the pandemic and are asking the charter board to also approve the program for the 2022-2023 academic year. Before the pandemic, KIPP had been approved to launch a small virtual high school program. The charter board is expected to vote on the new request Monday.
KIPP DC says 138 families have expressed interest in the virtual program, and it expects that number to grow. It anticipates around 4 percent of its student population to participate in the virtual program — more than 230 students. KIPP DC is hiring 18 people to staff the virtual program.
It expects most families who indicated they were unsure or unlikely to send their children back to school in August to return.
In April, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said that all students will need to be in classrooms in the fall full time unless they have a medical excuse to continue with virtual learning.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee has said a virtual academy for the public school system would be small and separate from traditional classrooms, with its own principal and staff.
At a D.C. Council hearing Thursday, Ferebee said the school system has received 38 applications from families requesting virtual learning, 19 of which have been approved. But that number is expected to grow as the academic year draws near. And some parents and community leaders testified Thursday that the medical exemption forms are confusingly worded and that their doctors are unsure how to fill them out. Also, with so many families trying to get checkups and routine immunizations ahead of the school year, doctor appointments can be hard to get, they said.
The D.C. Council hearing, focused on reopening this fall, highlighted the reality that the pandemic will still shape the upcoming academic year.
Some who testified said that the city should allow more children to opt into virtual learning — even if they do not have a medical exemption.
In D.C., White teens are more than twice as likely to have received a vaccination than Black teens. Depending on health guidelines in the fall, that could mean that teens in schools with low vaccination rates could have to spend more time out of school quarantining.
Ferebee said that masks would be required by everyone — vaccinated or unvaccinated — who enters a school building
Shawn Hardnett, founder of the Statesman Preparatory College Academy charter school, said he believes that just a small portion of his eligible students are vaccinated. He said at the council hearing that the school’s staff is working on educating about vaccinations and making them accessible to families.
“It has been a difficult time, and we all know that the more vaccinations exist in schools the better off we will all be,” Hardnett said.
In addition to KIPP DC, two other charter schools are seeking permission for a virtual option in the fall that would serve students who do not have a medical reason to remain home. AppleTree Institute, a preschool charter network, wants a virtual program for 20 preschoolers. An adult would need to be at home with the children to help them participate.
And a Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science proposal calls for about 15 percent of its student body to remain virtual, citing fears of the virus and apprehension over taking public transit to campus.
“If we don’t provide a virtual option for these students, it will adversely affect our enrollment,” the application to the charter board reads.
While officials at KIPP DC say a virtual option is necessary, they are seeing more families become comfortable returning.
Letisha Vinson has rising fifth- and sixth-graders in the charter network. When she filled out the KIPP DC survey asking whether she wanted her children to return in the fall, she put that she was unsure. But she decided to enroll her children in the KIPP DC summer camp to see how she felt. She said it went well — and that she did not hear of any coronavirus cases. They will be returning in the fall.
“I was nervous for the summer,” she said. “It allowed me to become more familiar with the building. It was a great opportunity.”
Tyrina Hinkle said she and her son, a rising senior, talked about whether he should return. They had a close friend from church die of covid-19, and even though she and her son got vaccinated this summer, they are still extremely cautious about going out in public spaces.
But her son wanted a senior year, and since he does not rely on public transportation to go to school, she decided to allow him to return.
“I feel safer with him going into the school building than him going into the grocery store or mall,” Hinkle said. “At this point, communication is key. And the more we communicate with each other about our concerns and what works and doesn’t, that’ll be the key to getting through this.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Letisha Vinson’s last name as Vineson. The story has been corrected.