That the school system made it through the first week with a degree of success was due to the herculean efforts of teachers and school staff members, according to more than a dozen interviews with parents and teachers. They delivered computers and hotspots to students’ homes if parents couldn’t pick them up. They determined which special education students may need Play-Doh for a more tactile experience and delivered that to homes, too. They spent their evenings tracking down hard-to-reach families on social media, through friends and home visits, filling in when the school systems’ communication failed to reach parents.
Still, everyone seemed to agree that the first week also highlighted the limitations of distance learning. Parents of younger children say there is too much screen time, and virtual classrooms quickly become a challenge. They also say the continual computer breaks requiring them to help their children log in again during the day make it impossible for them to complete work on their own.
“What’s the plan?” a frustrated father asked city officials Wednesday on a telephone town hall. “This is not sustainable.”
D.C. leaders have not announced a timeline to return to in-person classes and said they would revaluate health data in the coming months to see whether school can transition to a hybrid model after Nov. 6, the end of the first quarter. But they have not announced the health metrics that would trigger a return to school buildings. And even when schools reopen, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee told families at a community meeting Thursday on Zoom that virtual learning isn’t going anywhere.
“There will always be an option for families to choose virtual learning for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Ferebee said the school system distributed laptops or tablets to 21,000 families since the pandemic shut down schools in March. The school system said that as students continue to enroll, schools are requesting more technology for them. D.C. Public Schools educates about 52,000 students.
Ferebee told families that 80 percent of families logged on the first day of distance learning. But the school system has not released the latest enrollment numbers, so it is unclear how many unenrolled students are missing from class rosters — and not participating in any distance learning. Teachers in younger grades said attendance has been strong, but some high school teachers said their classes are half full.
The city’s biggest technological setback has come at the early-childhood level. The school system had wrongly predicted it would be able to get the youngest learners into school buildings a few days a week and did not plan to have virtual learning for them. When officials learned that school would be all virtual in late July, they ordered iPads for thousands of students, which have not yet arrived. They plan to distribute them in mid-September, with many prekindergarten students starting the school year with paper packets.
“We placed the order later than we did the other technology,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn told residents at the town hall. “That is a problem of procurement.”
Teachers said while most of their students in kindergarten and up had technology their first week, some had broken cameras or programs that did not work. The technology help hotline that the city set up was so busy in the first few days that many parents couldn’t get through. The school system added more help to the hotline later in the week.
Liz Koenig, prekindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Northeast Washington, said she connected with all but two of her 16 students this week and most of them could participate in virtual learning on their parents’ phones if they did not yet have tablets.
Koenig has her own preschooler and first-grader in the school system, and her husband is also a city teacher. There were times last week when all four of them were simultaneously in virtual classes. If her youngest child struggled or lost focus, there was not much Koenig could do to help. One time, the preschooler fell over some blocks and crashed the class Koenig was teaching.
Across the city, enrollment is down for the two prekindergarten grades, and Koenig understands: She is also considering putting her 3-year-old back in day care.
“I am trying my best, but it’s a poor substitute for my kids. I’m reading stories; I’m trying to be engaging,” she said. “But I also understand as a parent, if you think that it’s more important to take your preschooler for a walk outside, I am not going to tell you not to.”
Deanna Wright, a kindergarten teacher at Boone Elementary in Southeast Washington, said she’s impressed with how parents have managed the first week of school. Sixteen of her 18 students regularly attended classes the first week. Parents texted her when they were running late to sign on and frequently called her with questions about how their children were supposed to be completing assignments.
One mother took her son to work each day and was able to find a quiet space for him to participate in distance learning. If they were in the car during class, the child would use his mom’s phone to log on.
“I felt like a first-year teacher again, those butterflies, I didn’t know what to anticipate,” Wright said. “Once the first day came, and with parents being resilient and understanding, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel good to know we are on the right course.”
But teachers and city activists say that without child care, there’s only so much parents can do. Teachers know that younger students may be at relatives’ homes while their parents work at jobs deemed essential and may not be able to log on each day. Some teachers said some of their high school classes are still half empty.
The school system is not yet offering child care, but some nonprofit organizations are creating “learning hubs” where students can go and be supervised during the school day.
Ryane Nickens has created a hub at a community center in the Langston Lane apartment complex in Southeast, where students can complete their remote classes with aides. She has raised more than $40,000 to serve around 15 students who are at least one or two grade levels behind. Many of the students have parents who are security guards, janitors or work in hospitality and have to report to their jobs. The center will also offer hours for other children to meet with tutors in person outdoors.
“To hear mothers who don’t have support even think about the choice: ‘What is more my priority, supporting my family or my child’s education,’ ” said Nickens, executive director of the TraRon Center, which uses art to work with families affected by gun violence. “No parent should have to make that decision. Our parents were having to make that choice.”
Life Pieces to Masterpiece, an after-school program serving Black boys in low-income D.C. neighborhoods, is continuing its programming outdoors in Southeast. Staffers, who include teenagers in the neighborhoods, pick up masked children and bring them to a park with hotspots so they can do their schoolwork.
Tory’elle Coleman, a 16-year-old junior at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, said his days are structured and filled with live classes. Technological high jinks marred the first days, he said, including from his classmates who were kicking each other out of classrooms. One teacher had audio troubles and had to redo part of the class the next day.
Coleman said he and his classmates were confused about the schedule on Wednesday, when the school system does not offer live courses and students are supposed to have meetings with teachers.
One of his favorite parts of the week is his part-time job at Life Pieces to Masterpieces. He takes a public bus after his remote classes are finished to help children from the Northeast Washington elementary school he once attended. They meet in a park near the school and use hotspots.
“I miss hanging around my friends, hanging around the bus stop,” Coleman said. “But having some sort of interaction with these kids, it’s been great.”