D.C. schools are set to reopen this week for the first time in nearly a year, with schools in wealthier wards at maximum capacity while seats remain empty in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, because families there have opted in high numbers to stay home and continue with virtual learning.

The partial reopening is a relief to families of all incomes, but the mismatch across the city has teachers and parents questioning whether the city should be pouring resources during the pandemic into an in-person learning program that White students are disproportionately enrolling in.

Across the country, Black and Hispanic communities have been hit hardest by the virus, and many of these families have told their school districts they do not feel safe sending their children back to school buildings. In D.C., families in the poorest ward rejected offers for an elementary school spot at twice the rate of families in the wealthiest one, according to city data.

Still, the District’s public school population is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, and most students returning are students of color.

“She’s better off back at school,” said Rhonda Hall, a Black mother in Southeast Washington who is sending her 6-year-old daughter back to school because she was falling behind in reading and missed her friends.

The city’s reopening plan is capped at just 15,000 of the school system’s 52,000 students, some of whom were invited to come back to a classroom just once a week for a few hours. Only 9,200 students have accepted seats to return.

Students are preparing to return Monday as the teachers union and city continue to spar, with the union arguing it is not safe to return to school buildings and making a last-minute attempt to delay the reopening date. Snow also threatens to derail the long-awaited start.

Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said school buildings are safe, health metrics allow for students to return, and school will open as planned.

Principals were able to offer slots to anyone, but Ferebee had directed them to prioritize students at highest risk for academic failure, a broad group that includes students whose families receive food stamps. At some schools, nearly all of the children are considered at-risk. At others, it’s less than 10 percent.

Of the elementary students expected to return to classrooms, 60 percent are homeless, learning English as a second language, receiving special education services or designated as at-risk, which means they are in foster care or their families qualify for public assistance. At the middle and high school level, 70 percent of students fall into one of these categories.

White children, who make up 16 percent of the D.C. school system’s population, are a minority of the total number of students expected to return to classrooms — 28 percent of the 6,300 children at the prekindergarten and elementary level, according to city data — but a larger percentage of them chose in-person learning.

As a result, some campuses in the wealthiest neighborhoods have most of their students — hundreds of children — returning. And on the other side of the Anacostia River, some schools have just a couple dozen students listed.

“For me personally, staying virtual has a lot of benefits because I can control a lot more,” said Burnice Cain, the PTA president of Houston Elementary in Southeast Washington, who lost her bartending job during the pandemic and now stays home with her daughter. “My daughter’s asthma has been better while she’s home.”

Ferebee said he believes the city’s public education system has an obligation to offer in-person learning as an option to children, even if most families do not want it. City leaders view this as the first step to more expansive in-person learning offerings. If the school system can pull it off, more families may want to join.

“The reality is that as African Americans — and I can speak clearly to this — our health outcomes have not been the same as our peers, and a lot of that is related to systemic racism,” said Ferebee, who is Black. “Every child is different, and every circumstance is different.”

But many teachers and parents say the plan is not helping the students who need it the most and argue that bringing back 45 percent of the teacher workforce to serve 17 percent of students could make virtual classes worse for everyone. Some virtual learning classes sizes would grow to accommodate the smaller in-person classes needed to comply with health guidelines. Some teachers will now be teaching in-person classes while students at home log in to join.

“The kids that I am most worried about, either their parents weren’t comfortable with them coming back or they didn’t respond,” Jessica Salute, a teacher at a high-poverty school in Southeast Washington, said at a teachers union forum last week.  

Reliability questions

Interviews with parents and education activists across the city show that the decision of whether to send a child to a classroom during a pandemic is deeply personal and complicated, reflecting disparate family circumstances.

School leaders and neighborhood activists said some families want to return, but without after care, the parents couldn’t manage a pickup at 3 p.m. Others have children at multiple schools, including charter schools, and didn’t get slots for all of them.

Some said they found alternative and consistent child-care options — and the school system, which already canceled reopening plans twice, didn’t seem like a reliable choice.

Maria Milagro Vasquez finally has Internet and, with help from a teenage neighbor, can confidently use it. She has settled into a grueling yet now manageable routine with her first-grade son. Her Northwest Washington neighbors have depended on each other through the pandemic. If someone gets called for a last-minute shift, Vasquez, who used to work at a child-care facility, babysits free.

She trusts the measures she takes to keep her children and neighbors safe, and she feels it is too risky to send her son back. She decided that her son would not be returning to a classroom Monday.

Vasquez knows too many people in her neighborhood who have died of covid.

“It’s very hard to do reading and school with him at home,” Vasquez said in Spanish. “But I prefer to take on the burden myself.”

Rhonda Hall — the mother who is sending her daughter back to school in Southeast Washington — works as an assistant manager for Amazon Prime at a Whole Foods during the day, but when she is home, she notices her first-grader flipping to YouTube instead of listening to her teachers. Hall, who has had covid, said a prayer and made the decision.

She found it too troubling when she practiced reading with her daughter and noticed she could no longer read the word “microwave” like she once could.

“People don’t understand that going to school was an escape for many kids in the community,” Hall said. “And now they are stuck in the place they were trying to escape from.” 

And in upper Northwest Washington, the wealthiest swath of the city, Valerie Cline said her two children — particularly her fifth-grade son, who has ADHD — wanted to go back to school so badly that she couldn’t decline the seats offered. She believes, with the proper precautions, returning to school can be safe, and she has taught her children to wear masks and social distance.

“My son was coming to me daily with . . . tears missing his friends, the classroom and teacher,” said Cline, whose daughter is in first grade. “My kid, their emotional well-being, they were just wilted.”

Tory’elle Coleman, a 16-year-old junior who lives in Northeast Washington and attends Phelps Senior High, said he was offered a slot and his mother allowed him to accept it if he wanted. But school would only be for a few hours one morning a week, and it would have required him to rush home to make his afternoon virtual classes. Plus, he said, while he takes public transportation most days to commute to his job at an after-school program, he fears the busier bus line he would take to school would be too crowded.

He felt the school building would be safe, but declined the slot.

“I felt like it was a waste of time,” he said of the three hours of in-person learning he was offered a week.

Sharra Greer, policy director at the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group that provides free legal services to D.C. children from low-income families, said most of her clients are struggling with virtual learning but declined a slot for-person classes because they didn’t feel safe.

Different plan at every school

Every school has a different reopening plan, bringing back different students. There are schools that are only asking students struggling in certain courses to return. Others are targeting students in certain grade levels, leaving some families who want to return stuck with virtual learning.

Teare’Ra Bittle wishes her children could go back to school. Her family — two children, her parents, her sister, and two nieces — downsized to a two-bedroom apartment after she lost her wages working at a college cafeteria. It’s cramped, and she fears her children aren’t getting the individualized attention in remote learning they need.

One of her children has dyslexia and is struggling. The other typically receives speech therapy and hasn’t received the same services during virtual learning.

But she said their Northeast Washington elementary school isn’t offering in-person learning for children in fourth and fifth grade. So her children will continue full-time with virtual learning.

“At first I wasn’t too sure about them going back,” Bittle said. “But at this moment, they need to go back. These kids really need to go back.”

Greer noted that several of her clients in the foster care system weren’t offered an in-person slot, and she fears that schools may not have updated contact information for their guardians.

Michelle Romo, who lives in Northeast Washington with her husband, kindergartner and toddler, said she “won the lottery” when her kindergartner was offered a spot.

Romo hasn’t told her daughter yet because she is afraid schools will not reopen as planned. Still, her daughter senses something is happening, and has made a list of all the items she will need when she returns to school.

Romo said she and her husband both work virtual jobs and help with remote learning but rarely have time to take their daughter out to playgrounds during the day. She is often cranky and frustrated. They’ve already cut hours at work and can’t afford a full-time babysitter or pod with a tutor.

When her daughter sees groups of students in pods logging into class from the same room, she wonders why she can’t also be with other children.

“I can’t tell you how infuriating it is as a parent to see Lululemon open and bars and gyms open and school still closed,” Romo said.  “I feel like the city has just thrown parents and children under the bus with this.”