D.C. students who are furthest from opportunity are facing stark learning loss, losing nearly half an academic year for students designated as “at-risk.” Thousands of D.C. students might not be learning at all, and all young people are facing ongoing social isolation, the long-term ramifications of which we don’t yet understand. Combine that with a mismatch between high vaccine demand and low vaccine supply, and we arrive at a stalemate with our children getting the short end of a very bad deal.
But we can take this time, now, to plan for next school year and give students their strongest year yet.
Now is the time to put pre-coronavirus political views aside and position our schools, educators and families to provide what our students deserve: a strong academic year for students with social-emotional support. Here’s how.
First and foremost, our city must set a goal to open all D.C. public schools in person and on time for the 2021-2022 school year. The city must work with families, the community and educators to build trust by establishing transparent health protocols, creating confidence in building safety and readiness, including family and educator voices along the way and establishing schools and other community cornerstones as public vaccination sites. Families should not be forced to attend school in person (particularly if the vaccine is not yet widely distributed by August), but all families must have the option to attend in-person.
Second, we must prioritize the “why” of school. For our littlest learners, that means focusing on play-based learning and establishing reading and math support to ensure students are learning on grade level. For elementary and middle school students, they must dive deep into science, history, literature, social studies, art, music and math. A science experiment or trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture is why students love school, not Zoom. With more activities and experiences — such as field trips, clubs and athletics — students can love school again.
For high school students, communities, families and educators must help students achieve their dreams and stay on track for college and career. By creating a fifth academic quarter via the Summer Youth Employment Program, students can catch up on the critical experiences of high school, create individual college and career plans and get support in completing critical milestones on their path to graduation. This is particularly important for first-generation college-going students and those pursuing careers that will put them on the pathway to success. If we do not support students, we will be setting D.C. families, our students and our city back.
Third, all of this will take significant funding, which is why the city must increase the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula by a minimum of 4 percent. With extra funding, schools can scaffold academic support, address students’ social-emotional needs by hiring more school counselors and create the right programming to inspire students, such as re-engagement programs for adult returning students and targeted tutoring support for students. No matter a student’s grade, support must be targeted to those who are too often thought of last, seen as the least and are furthest from opportunity.
Fourth, students need more time in school. We must push beyond the ordinary 180-day school year and 8:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. school day because these are extraordinary times. It’s time to extend the school day, school week and school year. That will require agreement from the Washington Teachers Union for D.C. Public Schools and significantly more funding for both DCPS and public charter schools. The positive impacts could be compounding for students: giving them time to find their passions, catch up on academics and work through the mental and emotional challenges from the coronavirus.
With more time, schools can provide more extracurricular activities, bring back students early with summer bridge programming and provide more time learning. Many nonprofit organizations and after-school programs are ready to partner with schools to achieve this.
Finally, we must abandon the pre-coronavirus politics that have left students and their families alone and without leadership. The stakes are high: Our city is facing an economic and social fallout, where D.C.’s own residents, the fabric and fiber of this city, may not be able to contribute to our community and our economy.
We must keep the focus where it belongs: providing the academic experience every student needs to be happy, healthy and prepared for life. Our students, families and educators, all of us, are stressed and tired from this pandemic. But with strong leadership and a citywide commitment to students, we can deliver on their strongest year yet.
If any city can do it, it’s D.C. The question is, will we have the courage to do so?