The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In this Washington-area school system, more than 10,000 students remain virtual

Capitol Heights Elementary School teacher Natasha Rubin teaches virtually to a class of talented and gifted fourth-graders while simultaneously educating in-person students. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Most of Natasha Rubin’s fourth-graders write in journals and do their reading in a bright, book-stocked classroom with big windows and colorful student art on the walls. Hands shoot up during class discussions. Everyone is assigned a desk.

But for other students in Rubin’s Capitol Heights Elementary class, school is still virtual — with mornings that start at home on a computer and learning that happens mostly online. It’s not always what families want, but as the pandemic persists, it’s what some prefer.

It also makes Prince George’s unusual in the D.C. region, during a school year that was supposed to veer back toward pre-pandemic normalcy. Nationally, school systems have been split on continuing to offer virtual instruction.

In the Washington area, most school systems are going full-bore with in-person learning, considering it to be the best way for students to recover from the academic losses and mental health hardships of a nearly 20-month crisis.

Prince George’s County has emphasized in-school learning, too, and initially had a more modest virtual program in mind for fall. But that changed in August, when the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus was on the rise and vaccinations for children under 12 still seemed a ways off.

Worried about the spread of the virus, some Prince George’s parents demanded more virtual instruction. Now, almost 10,400 students from kindergarten to sixth grade are in virtual classes in the school district — the most of any school system in Maryland or the Washington area. A new Online Campus program for grades seven to 12 in Prince George’s enrolls about another 500.

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Monica Goldson, chief executive of the 130,000-student system, said in an interview that as the opening of school neared, she heard from more and more families who were reluctant to send young children back into school buildings without their shots.

“The anxiety continued to increase as the weeks grew in August,” she said, pointing out that Prince George’s has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more coronavirus cases than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

“Ultimately we want parents to feel comfortable about having their children with us because they’re with us for eight hours in a day, every day,” Goldson said.

In the majority-Black Prince George’s school system, many parents and educators are acutely aware that people of color are at particular risk. Federal data shows that people who are Black or Hispanic are more than twice as likely as Whites to be hospitalized or die of covid-19.

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For some families, the risks of an in-person return were too great.

“I feel more comfortable sending my kids back once they’re vaccinated,” said Liz Esposito, vice president of the PTA at Capitol Heights Elementary School, where her sons are in the fourth and fifth grades.

Esposito and her mother are immunocompromised, she said, and her children have done well in virtual learning. While one son really wants to be back in school, the other would stay virtual indefinitely if he could, she said.

“I’m glad they’ve been able to connect with the teachers even though they don’t see them in person,” she said.

The expanded virtual program is expected to last until early February, when the second quarter ends and Goldson hopes young students will have had opportunities for vaccinations and can get back to classrooms. While some students do well or thrive with virtual instruction, learning at a bricks-and-mortar school with a teacher is widely considered to be best for most students.

In Northern Virginia, remote programs are much smaller, with 638 students learning virtually in Arlington, about 530 in Loudoun County and fewer than 400 in Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, with an overall enrollment of almost 180,000.

Maryland’s largest school system, in Montgomery County, has enrolled about 3,250 students in a K-12 virtual program — less than a third as many as Prince George’s.

Across Maryland, about 25,000 students are learning virtually. Of those, more than 34 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to state data released this week. Among those enrolled in virtual learning, 50 percent are Black, 20 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are White and 7 percent are Asian, the data shows.

In D.C. public schools, parents fought for a virtual option, but D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and officials in her administration resisted, saying students, particularly low-income students of color, fell behind in virtual learning and it was vital that they return to classrooms. Bucking the mayor, the D.C. Council in October passed emergency legislation that allows at least 350 more students to switch into virtual learning. Previously, 286 exemptions were approved.

Markita Bryant, a single mom who advocated a virtual option, said her 10-year-old son has severe asthma and was turned down for a medical exemption. He has instead been in school, with extra safety measures, including a medical mask with filters, weekly testing on Fridays and daily oxygen readings, she said.

In her push for virtual learning, “I was just asking for grace until the vaccine was approved for my son’s age,” Bryant said. “They were not listening or understanding.” When he gets vaccinated, she said, she may celebrate with “a cake and balloons and everything you could think of.”

D.C. Council expands virtual learning, approves other pandemic-related measures

Vaccinations for children 5 to 11 are expected to be ready as early as the middle of next week, federal health officials have said. Meanwhile, schools across the region have reported hundreds of coronavirus cases since many schools opened in August.

One recent day at Capitol Heights Elementary, Esposito’s fourth-grade son and six other students were on camera as Rubin welcomed them into an early-morning Zoom session. She focused on her virtual students for the first hour of the day, then turned to her in-person students, who arrived in the building later. Sometimes the groups overlap for half an hour.

“Happy Friday!” she started out.

Soon they were discussing the assigned reading, from “Flora and Ulysses,” by author Kate DiCamillo. One student said she loved the novel. Another chimed in that she had already finished it. The students are part of a talented and gifted class.

Some participated by writing in the chat section of the Zoom meeting, rather than unmuting themselves and speaking into the screen.

Rubin asked them to tell her what it meant to be a “cynic,” a word used in the book.

“Someone who believes the worst,” a student wrote.

Not long afterward, the fourth-graders were with teacher Timothy McCotter, who was rotating his math instruction between virtual students and in-person students. While one group worked independently, he interacted with the other.

He asked Esposito’s young son how he calculated a math problem.

“When I rounded them to the nearest 10,000, they were the same,” the boy told him, explaining the answer correctly. The class explored better ways to compare them by rounding.

Several teachers at Capitol Heights Elementary said most of their students were doing well virtually, a sentiment shared by Goldson, the school system’s chief executive. For teachers, however, the juggling can be a challenge — though not all virtual teaching is done the same way.

Nicole Gibbs teaches 15 virtual students, all in second grade, who spend much of their school day with her. The class includes children from her home school, Capitol Heights Elementary, along with children from three other county schools.

Gibbs said she enjoys virtual teaching, which she said “forces me to open up in a different way and find different ways to engage with my students.” What she appreciates, she said, are the moments when they light up over something newly learned.

“It’s the spark in their eyes and the excitement in their voice when they grasp a new concept,” she said. “You know they have gotten it.”

Many schools around the country have moved away from a simultaneous approach to teaching this year, saying it’s too hard for teachers to focus on virtual kids and in-person kids at once. Prince George’s school system officials say 56 percent of classrooms from kindergarten to sixth grade have some level of concurrent teaching.

More teachers are asked to double up, instructing kids at school and at home simultaneously

“It’s very stressful,” said Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the teachers union. “Some of my colleagues have been sharing feelings of being April-exhausted when it was only September.”

The school system and the teachers union reached an agreement that educators who are doing concurrent teaching would get an extra $5,000 to $7,500 a year to compensate for the difficulty and the change in terms, Christy said.

Reshma “Rae” Sinanan-Hill, president of the PTA at Overlook Full Spanish Immersion School, in Temple Hills, said her third- and fourth-grade daughters are among more than 100 students who are doing distance learning.

The family’s decision seemed right, Sinanan-Hill said, when a letter came home about a coronavirus case during the first week of school. Besides, bus service has been “a nightmare,” she said. Still, though her daughters have done well with virtual instruction, her third-grader is eager to return.

“I don’t second-guess my reasoning for keeping them home,” Sinanan-Hill said. “I really want them to learn at school, but we’re dealing with a pandemic, and we need to make the best decisions we can to keep them safe.”

Perry Stein contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Reshma “Rae” Sinanan-Hill. This version has been corrected.

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