DC Public Schools to start limited in-person classes in November

D.C. Public Schools is planning to begin bringing back most elementary school students next month under a phased reopening plan, schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced during a news conference Monday.

Under D.C.’s plan, students in pre-K through fifth grade will start returning to classes for in-person learning starting Nov. 9, Ferebee said.

The school system doesn’t plan to start bringing middle and high school students — grades six through 12 — to classrooms until at least February.

All students can continue to learn at home if they choose, Ferebee said.

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D.C. Public Schools began the school year with virtual classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which had originally shuttered schools in March.

“Learning at home has been positive for many of our students … However, we also know at this time that learning at home is not working for every students, and we particularly know that our youngest learners have been the most challenged,” Ferebee said.

Offering in-person instruction to younger students first is aimed at mitigating learning loss, he said.

2 options for in-person learning

Under the phased approach for elementary students, public schools will offer both traditional in-person classrooms as well as an in-person/virtual model known as a CARE classroom, which stands for Canvas Academics and Real Engagement.

In traditional classrooms, students will learn in small groups led by a classroom teacher. The daily schedule will be similar to a typical school day, Ferebee said. The traditional classroom experience, which rolls out Nov. 9, will run five days a week, with half-days on Wednesdays.

The CARE classroom option will begin Nov. 16 for pre-K through first grade, and Nov. 30 for grades two through five.

In this model, students will continue to take virtual classes but will do so from a DCPS classroom alongside a small group of other students. A DCPS staff member — not the regular teacher — will monitor classrooms, help students access virtual learning materials, and ensure health and safety rules. The aim is to allow students to spend their day at school with a group of their peers, with breakfast, lunch and recess, even as their actual classes remain virtual.

Overall, D.C.’s plan would provide about 21,000 classroom seats — which covers about 75% of D.C. elementary school students. Based on surveys from parents over the summer, DCPS expects about 20-25% of students to continue with virtual learning.

Parents cannot opt-in to the in-person learning. Instead, Ferebee said, the school system is prioritizing classroom seats for elementary students who are considered the most at-risk, including students experiencing homelessness, those receiving special education service and English-language learners.

Schools will reach out to families later this month if they are selected for in-person learning. Even if they are contacted by school officials, parents can still opt for virtual learning.

Parents should expect to hear from schools by Oct. 23 if their child has been selected for a traditional in-person classroom slot and by Oct. 30 for the CARE classroom option.

Families that receive an offer for a classroom seat must have up-to-date immunization certificates for their student submitted by the first day of in-person attendance or they won’t be admitted, school officials said.

Health and safety measures

Officials also discussed the health and safety steps they are taking to protect students and staff.

Ferebee said the school system “has done tremendous work to prepare for operating in-person.”

“It’s important to note that we thought through every aspect of the day for our students,” he said.

There will be health screening and temperature checks at school entrances, along with sanitizing and mask stations. There will be staggered times for meals and recess and minimal transitions, the chancellor said.

Elementary schools are being prioritized for HVAC “enhancements,” Ferebee said.

There are also reporting and response protocols for dealing with positive cases. If there are any positive cases of a staff member or student, the whole school community will be notified and some would be required to quarantine, according to the DCPS plan.

For example, if a teacher or a student in a fourth-grade classroom tested positive for the coronavirus, all students and staff in that classroom would be notified and required to quarantine for 14 days. The classroom would be disinfected and sanitized, and the entire school would be notified that there was a positive.

If a parent or another household member of a student tests positive, the student will be required to quarantine for 14 days, according to the DCPS plan.

DCPS will regularly report COVID-19 cases in staff and students, Ferebee said.

Will there be enough staffing?

The plan to return students to classrooms next month requires about 3,400 staff members, Ferebee said.

Since the CARE classroom involves teachers continuing to provide virtual instruction, Ferebee said DCPS is planning to use other District employees to serve as CARE classroom monitors. They will have to undergo a background check and must have some college experience.

Ferebee said the school system is completing a staff survey “to ensure that we consider any needs of staff as we consider who would be assigned to virtual learning, and who would be assigned to in-person activity,” and he added, “we’ll assign those roles to staff accordingly.”

When asked what the school system’s plan would be if not enough teachers say they’re prepared to come back to the classroom, Ferebee said: “I don’t want to play too much ‘what if,’ and what I will tell you is that we’re committed to being responsive to the needs of our students, and we will do it with great safety and we will provide the resources to make that happen.”

In a lengthy statement, Washington DC Teacher’s Union President Elizabeth Davis weighed in on the plan, saying Ferebee and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have “failed to share the details of what COVID-19 safety measures have been instituted in each school. Their secrecy is a major part of our concern.”

Davis said a survey of D.C. teachers by the union last week showed only 3% of teachers believed their schools would be safe to open for in-person learning by Nov. 9.

Last Friday, Davis and Council of School Officers President Richard Jackson said they made a brief visit to Cardozo Education Campus last week but were eventually turned away from school staff.

During that brief tour, Davis said she “saw no evidence of progress being made to ready the buildings for in-person teaching and learning … Signage was virtually nonexistent and needed upgrades to restrooms and installation of hand sanitizing equipment were not complete.”

“Teachers, rightly, feel as if they are playing ‘Hunger Games’ with the mayor and chancellor. If our schools are truly ready or in-person learning, as the mayor and chancellor suggest, then why would they not want parents and school workers to see the evidence for themselves?” Davis said.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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