Op-EdOpinion

STRICKLAND: At Hart Middle School, Heart is at the Center of In-Person Learning

Beyond the headlines of DC Public Schools opening for in-person learning is the reality of what opening has meant to me, educators, students and families at my school.

I’m the principal at Hart Middle School in Ward 8, leading the school community for the past seven years. Last week, my team proudly opened the school building for students to learn in-person for the first time in nearly a year.

At Hart Middle School, more than 100 students can come for in-person learning one day per week. We prioritized special education students and general education students who need extra support. Our goal, by the end of the school year, is for all students to be given the opportunity to learn in-person and fully reopen in the fall.

The health and well-being of students and staff are our top priorities. Last Wednesday, students and staff arrived and followed our DC Health and CDC-aligned health protocols: wearing masks is mandatory; everyone completes a COVID-19 symptom check before coming into the building; and there is frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, among other safety measures.

This is true at Hart Middle School and true at all other DCPS buildings across the District.

As we return from a lengthy time away from classroom-based instruction, we are working hard to meet students where they are, being sure to give them the specific support that they require to thrive. To that end, students receive a special, personalized folder each Wednesday morning, created by their teachers. It outlines goals for the day, assignments they may have missed and what to look for the following days when they learn virtually.

With in-person learning, students can get individualized mini-lessons from their teacher or do the kinds of hands-on learning that they love, like science lab demonstrations, instead of learning on a screen. Critically, students will have access to all of their teachers and build a deep engagement that has been missing for some. In just one day of in-person learning last week, we are already seeing those relationships flourish.

While, for good reason, we cannot hug students or give high fives when students come in the door — students were immediately happy to see their teachers and classmates. Some students told me they could focus more just being in the same room as their teacher.

Of course, we must make in-person learning stronger, help ensure that attendance increases and see that every student is learning every day, whether in school or at home.

But we are also a school that believes in doing what is best for students, so we had to make in-person learning work and to do it in the safest way possible. Here is how we did it.

First, our staff planned together to make in-person learning work so that all staff members were comfortable returning in-person. As outlined in our school-specific plan, we were provided ample personal protective equipment – “PPE” – as well as any special PPE for staff positions that required it. We also created a learning model where every staff member has the opportunity to come in-person at some point during the school year.

Our staff made a commitment to one another and to our community to follow all health and safety measures recommended by public health experts, so we can make our environment as safe as possible. As public school educators, I and my team had the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine but we still must protect our families and our community.

For our families, we provided the support and answers on how in-person learning looks. We call and send reminders on requirements for returning in-person. We also use these opportunities to check-in on how all of our students are doing — regardless of where they are learning.

While our North Star remains expanding in-person opportunities safely and responsibly, every family and student situation is different. Some families are choosing in-person learning; some are not yet ready to make that choice. As I remind myself and my team, we must have compassion and grace as we all try to best navigate these unprecedented challenges.

I hope, by the end of the school year, every student has the opportunity to come into our building for in-person learning. Even in these times, I want our families and students to feel like they have been taken care of.

We know families experienced tragedy and trauma over this past year. Through this tragedy, Hart Middle School continued to meet their children’s educational and social-emotional needs, including love, when needed.

No matter the challenge, in-person or remote, Hart Middle School brings the heart to our work every day.

Charlette Strickland is the principal of Charles Hart Middle School in Ward 8.

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