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Virtual Learning Expansion Sparks Both Hope and Skepticism

Since the D.C. Council’s unanimous passage of emergency legislation increasing virtual learning slots in District public and public charter schools, parents whose children had been denied that option must now consider taking advantage of the highly coveted opportunity.

Even with a greater chance of approval, there’s some skepticism among parents, including Latrice Harris, about whether schools will approve their applications and allow their children to learn from within the safe confines of their home.

“My child has done OK since school started [but] she’s had a lot of colds and coughs that I had to monitor,” said Harris, a COVID-19 survivor and mother of a second grade public charter school student who suffers from asthma.

The legislation, titled Protecting Our Children Emergency Declaration Resolution, applies to children like Harris’ daughter who live with people posing a high risk of illness from a COVID-19 infection.

In the aftermath of her months-long bout with coronavirus, Harris said she couldn’t risk letting her daughter compromise her safety and that of other family members.

That’s why Harris sought the virtual learning option for her child who, like other students her age, still does not have an available COVID-19 vaccine.

Upon learning that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE]’s medical consent and certification form included a request for access to her daughter’s medical information, Harris opted to fill out a form from Children’s National Hospital in Northwest which she viewed as less intrusive.

However, Harris revealed the Children’s National Hospital’s form failed to satisfy officials at her child’s school. The Southeast resident also questioned what she described as a lack of clarity around the criteria deemed acceptable for virtual learning — sentiments that haven’t changed.

“I will reapply but I’m concerned that she won’t qualify,” Harris said. “I was told the first time that I was the only parent who came in with an application. A lot of children get out of the car [in the morning] without a mask. The children are not set apart in the classroom. There are 25 of them and no way to have them three to six feet apart.”

Executive Office of the Mayor Responds 

The recently approved emergency legislation, which goes into effect 10 days from its passage, expanded the DC Public Schools [DCPS]’ virtual option by 350 slots.

It also allowed three percent of the student body at each District public charter school to enroll in a virtual learning program.

By October 5, when the D.C. Council voted to expand the virtual learning option, 302  students in the District’s public schools had their medical consent and certification forms approved while 94 had been denied.

OSSE didn’t provide The Informer with the total number of students in public and public charter systems currently enrolled in a virtual learning program. But a representative revealed that only DCPS officials and administrators at each charter school would know how many students have been denied the virtual learning option.

Amid the Delta variant, education officials, federal and local, have espoused a commitment to providing the safest in-person learning experience for students.

In late August, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) likened the first day of school to the Super Bowl, assuring parents and community members that schools would best mitigate the spread of COVID-19 upon students’ return to the classroom.

Since then, DC Health has counted more than 840 COVID cases in the District’s public and public charter schools.

As of October 6, Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School, Hart Middle School, DC International School and KIPP DC Quest Academy Public Charter School count among the schools with the highest number of COVID-19 cases this academic year.

In a response to the council vote, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn cited not only the executive’s fidelity to health and safety protocols but what he described as strong enrollment and good attendance.

“We are deeply concerned [that] the council would enact any legislation that would do anything to disrupt the vital in-person learning that is taking place in our schools right now without following the science and advice from our public health leaders,” Kihn said.

“While the legislation raises many unanswered questions, our priority will remain ensuring every family in our city has access to a safe, high-quality in-person learning experience,” he added.

Parents, Longtime Advocates Look to the Future 

The council’s introduction of the Protecting Our Children Emergency Declaration Resolution followed complaints from parents about the rejection of their medical consent and certification form and calls from truancy officials to families who kept their children home.

A recent D.C. Council oversight hearing attracted dozens of parents, including Markita Bryant, who shared what she described as unclear criteria for a child’s enrollment in a virtual learning program.

Bryant counted among the first parents to submit a medical consent and certification form. After DCPS central office rejected her petition, Bryant reached out to Bowser, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and D.C. council members. She also joined several other parents in contacting the Children’s Law Center in Northwest.

Bryant eventually worked out a plan that includes her son’s use of a special mask and her lunchtime visits to ensure that he’s in the safest conditions possible.

Though she expressed gratitude for the expansion of the virtual learning option, she said it remains to be seen how DCPS would facilitate it.

“Even though it’s 350 seats, it’s better than nothing,” said Bryant, a native Washingtonian.

“The biggest thing I was asking for was grace until my son could get vaccinated [but] the chancellor and mayor kept using the same language that kids were best served in school. I was in tears [at the D.C. Council hearing] last month. I didn’t even want to talk,” she said.

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