Amid a national resurgence in COVID-19 cases and nonstop protests among teachers and other community members, D.C. officials announced that the 2020-2021 school year will commence online, as requested by a sizable amount of people who participated in a survey earlier this month.
While some officials, including Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, raised concerns about socioeconomic inequity and access to technology, Kihn assured community members that this decision spoke to the severity of a pandemic that’s infected thousands of people and stoked the fears of instructors, especially those with underlying conditions that place them in greater danger of contracting the coronavirus.
“Our top priority in planning for this school year is the well-being of our students, staff, families and community,” Kihn told reporters on July 30. “We’re moving forward with an all-virtual school year for pre-kindergarten to grade 12 for Term One, up until Nov. 6.”
The announcement came just two weeks after Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Lewis Ferebee revealed a bevy of instructional plans they were contemplating, including a hybrid plan in which students would report to school twice during the week.
Even with the all-virtual learning announcement, Kihn alluded to such plans.
“We will continue to plan for in-person options for Term Two. We understand the concerns that families have about access to technology,” he said during the press conference in the old D.C. Council chambers in Judiciary Square. “We understand the reality of inequality. In large part, that’s what makes me concerned about having students out of the classroom for months at a time. We’re committed to giving students the tools they need to participate in virtual learning.”
Earlier this month, the DCPS central office moved its Summer Bridge program online and halted the finalization of fall plans after the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) President Elizabeth Davis asked, in a letter to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, that DCPS better engages teachers in dialogue about a safe reopening.
That communication transpired after the release of “Return-to-In-Person Work” guidelines that some teachers criticized as preemptive and coercive. That document, accompanied by a questionnaire about instructors’ willingness to teach in their school building, incited protests across the D.C. area and a campaign centered on the safe reopening of schools.
Those developments coincided with the gradual reopening of the District and other U.S. cities and states that critics have since characterized as premature.
Since the District entered Phase 2 of its reopening in June, COVID-19 cases have surged in nearby states. In response, Bowser ordered that District residents returning from states with high levels of COVID-19 activity self-quarantine for two weeks. She also mandated the use of face masks, an order that carries a $1000 fine if violated. This transpired just as the District Department of Health expressed concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 clusters.
On July 29, the District reported 58 additional positive coronavirus cases, bringing the total number to more than 12,000. As of press time, more than 580 people have succumbed to the virus, a significant portion of which includes people of color and residents living east of the Anacostia River.
Given the current situation, some teachers such as James Israel say that the District should embrace a learning model that, long before COVID-19, had increased in popularity not only at the K-12 level but in other academic arenas as well.
“Some colleges have online courses and they do online masters and doctoral degrees. You’re preparing students to be 21st-century virtual learners,” said Israel, a teacher at Hart Middle School and WTU vice president for junior high schools. “For me, I’ve been [facilitating] synchronous and asynchronous [learning] for the last two years. If students are not in class, I would post my lessons on Google Classroom. Mayor Bowser and Chancellor Ferebee were trying to consider all of the variables to come to a reasonable outcome.”