Since the beginning of the academic year, at least a dozen D.C. charter schools have attempted to maintain a sense of normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic by opening their campuses and facilitating in-person learning plans shaped by D.C. Department of Health (DOH) guidelines and community feedback.

Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis, the newly installed executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), hailed some of those institutions — including Sojourner Truth Public Charter School, Briya Public Charter School, and the Social Justice Public Charter School — as examples of how such collaborative efforts can help the District’s more than 120 charter schools balance safety and academic concerns this year.

“It has been very challenging for many students, including our special education population, English language learners, and [other] students who may be already behind,” said Walker-Davis, a veteran education leader and alumna of the Williams administration who assumed the helm of DCPCSB amid discussions about whether students, teachers, and staff members would return to campus this fall.

Since July, she has met with school leaders, parent groups, and agency leaders, while also attending ward education council meetings and fostering a relationship with the DC Charter School Alliance, an advocacy organization that represents nearly all the District’s charter schools.

“We’ve been encouraging schools to listen to families and listen to what it would take to get back quickly and safely as we can, recognizing that it will look different [for] each school,” Walker-Davis added.

“Some schools may choose to take a virtual stance, and as they bring the students back, they might prioritize the student population that needs in-person learning the most.”

Ongoing Questions about Safety and Instruction

Last week, not long before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the city’s public health emergency to the end of the year, the DC Department of Health reported the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases in four months. While the test positivity rate remains below the threshold of 3 percent, the District experienced a slight increase between mid-September and the beginning of the month.

Even so, some charter school students and their public school counterparts have returned, and will return, to their school campuses within the next few weeks amid an ongoing battle between the D.C. Public Schools’ central office and the Washington Teachers’ Union about the conditions under which students and teachers will reenter the classroom.

After the closure of some public charter schools, enrollment in the charter sector dropped this academic year for the first time in two decades. Though public charter schools currently teach less than 50 percent of the local student population, COVID-19 has presented challenges for leaders in both sectors.

For those in the charter sector, the coronavirus has brought to the forefront conversations about educational inequity, burdens facing those who work long hours, and the manner in which the PCSB evaluates charter school performance. Earlier this year, DCPCSB announced that, though it would continue to collect data from schools, it would not assign them a tiered rating on the Performance Management Framework (PMF), a tool also referred to as the School Quality Report that has been criticized as detrimental to schools with a high at-risk population.

“We continue to value the quantitative and qualitative information in addition to the actual PMF,” Walker-Davis told The Informer as she noted that the board has started conversations about possible changes to the PMF.

“We do site reviews that get qualitative information and look at how the school performs in action,” she added.

Key Stakeholders Weigh In

Earlier this month, the DC Charter School Alliance hosted a virtual forum for at-large D.C. Council candidates during which Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes asked the eight who participated questions about virtual learning, educational equity, school choice and other important issues of concern amid a global pandemic and racial turbulence.

This meeting of the minds took place days after the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education reported that 20,000 District students hadn’t completed their school registration. Deputy Mayor Paul Kihn attributed the enrollment gap to a postponed school lottery and parents’ inability to submit essential documents online.

Other concerns, as have been articulated by some parents, involved the lack of uncertainty around school plans, and children’s stamina for distance learning, especially at such a young age.

In her role as founding executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, Shannon Hodge has engaged charter school leaders who have spoken to parents with various perspectives on when, or whether to, return to in-person learning.

She said discussions often and paradoxically focus on the stress of virtual learning on parent and child, and the tremendous amount of work needed to ensure a conventional, but safe, alternative. Because many parents are still apprehensive about returning within the next month, finding that balance, Hodge said, has been an ongoing challenge.

“[Some] parents aren’t comfortable with [the] concept [of virtual learning]. There are a significant number of charters that have identified students for whom distance learning is not working,” Hodge told The Informer.

“They might be seeing between 20 and 100 students on site. People are trying to be responsive to the learning needs of students, and charters are trying to meet the needs of their communities.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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