This week, thousands of District students returning from the spring break spent their first day, not in the classroom, but at home engaged in video conferences, PowerPoint presentations and other online academic activities coordinated by their teachers.

Since D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) declared a public health state of emergency and ordered the shutdown of schools, administrators, teachers, parents and others had been preparing for what school officials have coined as distance learning.

This mass exodus to the web — designed to provide sequestered students with some continuity in their learning during an unprecedented time away from school — has provided some parents, like Sharod and Brittany Wade, the opportunity to inch closer to their family’s homeschool goals.

The Wades say their children, who had been preparing for the transition to distance learning for nearly two weeks, entered their online math and social studies classes eager to soak in knowledge.

“The younger ones did an overview of their class to get used to distance learning and the middle schoolers used Google teams where they had interactive lessons from their teachers,” Sharod Wade said.

“Our oldest daughter likes it and was in tune with being able to self-pace in an atmosphere conducive to learning,” he added. “The biggest thing was taking out the awkwardness of adjusting from a primarily in-person school format to a virtual, self-paced format.”

Since the launch of distance learning programs scheduled to go on until at least April 27, students of various ages have either worked on packets doled out before spring break, or conferred with their teachers on video conferencing platforms and by other means.

In the charter sector, students relegated to their homes have logged on to Google Classroom and ClassDojo while reading assignments annotated by their teachers.

Meanwhile, public and public charter school teachers have implemented various communication strategies to maintain contact with families, particularly those in homes without technology.

School counselors and social workers have done the same for students in need of accommodations, while officials in the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) worked around the clock to highlight technological gaps preventing some households from participating in distance learning.

During a press conference Tuesday, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said nearly 30 percent of public school students needed laptops and told reporters that high schoolers would have priority over the more than 16,000 extra DCPS — issued devices on hand. He alluded to the possibility of some high school students tutoring their younger peers in exchange for community service hours. City officials later revealed plans to eventually broadcast educational content for elementary students on D.C. public access television.

However, the distance learning-related announcement that had perhaps garnered the most attention this week involved the Digital Equity Fund, a collaboration in the amount of $1.1 million between Education Forward DC, the DC Public Education Fund, the Greater Washington Community Foundation and other private entities that Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said would manifest in the expansion of Internet access and the purchase of devices for students.

“The fund will be used to ensure their basic needs are being met so they can learn, to provide them with Internet and device access to overcome the digital divide, and to provide a successful transition to when school buildings are open,” Kihn told reporters on Tuesday morning.

“Distance learning is not a vacation. We expect learning to continue and are asking communities to do your best to support students as we navigate this new normal,” he added.

As of Monday night, the D.C. Department of Health has recorded more than 130 positive cases of the coronavirus, the youngest of which is a 1-year-old girl. Two people have also recently died, a situation that compelled Bowser to extend the school shutdown, originally scheduled to end on March 31, to April 27.

Since declaring a public health state of emergency, Bowser has worked closely with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in coordinating a region-wide response and encouraging social distancing. Earlier this week, Bowser and Hogan called for the shutdown of businesses and venues deemed nonessential — including parks, libraries, gyms, spas and senior centers.

Northam counted among one the first state executives to close schools for the rest of the academic year.

While it has yet to be determined whether Bowser will follow suit, some District teachers, like Laura Fuchs of H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast, said that she and her colleagues across the city will have to think about how to tailor instruction and properly evaluate the academic progress of students who might not be able to sit on the computer or work on assignments for several hours at a time.

In regard to students’ need for technology, Fuchs, a WTU executive member who has espoused the public funding of basic amenities, said that teachers had long rallied around that cause long before the coronavirus pandemic, to no avail.

“We understand it’s not easy but we have families who don’t have access to computers, and sometimes that’s necessary,” she told The Informer. “With [the coronavirus], it’s become more obvious that children need to take laptops home. DCPS should’ve been paying for laptops and maintenance. The equity fund is privatization. We pay taxes and D.C. is not a broke city.”

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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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