How Some Schools Got Kids Back to the Classroom

"The Challenges Are Real"

A school farm is part of the program at Truth, where students are currently in the process of constructing a chicken coop. Courtesy: The Sojourner Truth School.

In the spring, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the nation’s schools, forcing most of the District’s students to continue learning virtually at home. Experts have cautioned that the achievement gap will only widen as students continue distance learning, with a disproportionate effect on Black and Latino students and special needs students.

While some schools offered variations of in-person learning, many parents hesitated to send their students back to classrooms. For the nine months of the pandemic, the argument that many students are better served academically and socially by in-person learning has been set against concerns that reopening schools will lead to increased transmission of the virus, putting everyone present at risk.

But many schools, especially private, parochial and charter schools, have relative freedom to address the needs of students as they see fit. They recognize both the need and the risk and each is balancing them differently. As school resumed at the end of 2020, they moved to establish safe in-school environments based on the capacities of teachers, families, staff and students.

Here’s a look at how some schools managed in-classroom learning during the first term of the 2020-21 school year.

Communication is Key
School leaders say that one key element to getting kids back in the classroom is communication between staff, teachers and student families. In the spring and summer, many schools began talking with families about what in-school instruction could look like in the fall.

A grade five class at St. Peter School learns in person while the other half of the class, visible on-screen behind the teacher, follows along from home. Teachers simultaneously instruct both virtual and in-person students. Courtesy: St. Peter School

Both the data and conversation are key to making everyone comfortable with decision-making, said Edmund Burke School Head of School Damian R. Jones. The private middle- and high- school at 4101 Connecticut Ave. NW has been holding monthly town halls since March as well as grade-level meetings and one-on-one meetings. Information about Burke’s COVID-19 precautions and policies is shared to a dashboard on the school website. “We felt it was not only important to generate the information, but to walk them through it,” said Jones, “and then to engage in a conversation with these really important stakeholders so that they’re being brought along.”

The stakeholders were just beginning the trip at Sojourner Truth Middle School (1800 Perry St. NW) when the pandemic hit. The new public charter was set to open for the first time in the fall of 2020, offering classes to 92 sixth and seventh graders with plans to expand to include a high school in the future.

The school community began regular online meetings in April to talk about what in-school learning could look like, working through what both parents and teachers needed to feel safe. In August, Truth opened with 20 students learning in-person, largely those needing learning supports or with other risk factors.

Executive Director Justin Lessek said that the school’s relatively small size allows for greater communication between members of the school community. “I do think that as a small school we were able to be a little more nimble when it came to responding to certain challenges,” Lessek said.

A Variety of Approaches
These conversations also allowed some schools be more creative in their operations, choosing different approaches that meet the need of in-person students as well as those at home with existing staff.

Many are offering primarily virtual learning in the classroom. As of Nov. 18, Stanton Elementary School (2701 Naylor Rd. SE) began offering two CARES classrooms to about 15 students from kindergarten to grade 5, said Principal Harold McCray, Jr.

While DCPS had initially proposed that schools offer one in-person class per grade, the decision was later pulled back after opposition from teachers. Students in Stanton’s CARES classrooms are individually learning from their teacher via their device.

The CARES classrooms provide a safe place, meals and both academic and technological support to students who might not get it at home. At some DCPS schools, students are supervised by DCPS staff. McCray said that Stanton received a grant this year for the school’s after-school program co-ordinator, AlphaBETS to function as the on-site supervisors as students engage in virtual learning.

While DCPS mandates in-person learning guidelines for public schools in the District, private and charter schools, smaller in class size and bureaucracy, are generally more free to customize their approach.

At Edmund Burke, even students who are in-classroom watch instruction on their devices; teachers teach through technology to the entire class at once, whether students are present or not.

St. Peter School invested more than $45,000 into building improvements, cleaning and equipment, including this medical tent staffed by school nurse Ester Ackerman. Courtesy: St. Peter School

At the beginning of December, Burke invited the middle- and high-school entry grades (6th and 9th) back to campus, and most accepted —about 70 percent of each grade. Burke’s decision to teach all students through technology allows for students to elect to learn at home, and allows the school to easily move between in-person and fully virtual models without losing students in the process.

Others schools opted for a mix. Capitol Hill Catholic elementary and middle school St. Peter School (422 Third St. SE) is operating on a hybrid schedule. Each class is separated into two sections; one reports to class on Monday and Tuesday, and the other on Wednesday and Thursday. Teachers instruct live and virtual students simultaneously via a live feed. St. Peter Principal Karen Clay said families can choose to remain 100 percent virtual, and about 50 or so families out of about 240 students have chosen to do so.

At Sojourner Truth, students were either taught all-virtually or all-in-person. It was teachers who flipped between in-person and remote teaching between periods. “We decided early on that we felt teaching to a physical group of students is a different art than teaching to a group of students remotely,” Lessek said. “Both can be effective but use a different set of skills.” The two in-person classes can also transition to virtual learning.

Precautions Gain Confidence
As per DC Health Phase Two recommendations, most every school requires students to report daily any symptoms that could be linked to COVID; if two or more are indicated, then students are directed to see a doctor. Buildings have distinct entry and exit points, and even stairwell use is regulated to limit contact and facilitate contact tracing. Everyone must be masked in the school at all times. Temperatures are taken at entry, and staff monitor students as they make their way to the classroom, escorting them between classes, monitoring bathroom capacity, or reminding students to pull their masks over their noses and keep a six-foot distance in the school yard or at lunch hour.

Some schools go further than that. At Edmund Burke, students must remain masked and ten feet apart throughout the day, whether it be at their desks in class, in circles marked out for them at lunch, or outdoors for “mask free” breaks.

Those precautions augment serious investments in facilities. St. Peter invested $45,000 in air purifiers, plexiglass shields for Early Childhood classrooms, PPE and medical equipment. Edmund Burke installed ionizing bars in air handling units throughout the school. At Sojourner Truth, in addition to PPE and touchless thermometers, the school built new, extra-long picnic tables to facilitate socially-distanced outdoor dining and replaced all water fountains with bottle filling stations. Many schools have also hired cleaning crews on top of the usual janitorial staff to deep-clean schools at night. Some, like Edmund Burke, also use an electrostatic machine to disinfect.

Difficulty Integrating Regular Testing
While schools all see the importance of testing, some have found it difficult to integrate regular asymptomatic testing into their protocol. Burke requires proof of a negative PCR test less than 7 days prior to student return to campus and has set a goal for regular testing at 3-week intervals, but has not yet implemented this surveillance testing.

Sojourner Truth PCS found a testing partner early, entering into an agreement with medical testing company Curative, which provided regular testing as needed to staff and students. Curative also offered testing to the community, erecting a kiosk on the school campus that serves about 100 people a day.

DCPS announced regular asymptomatic testing protocols for staff and students doing in-school learning at 10-day intervals. But while Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) later said that access to asymptomatic testing would be expanded to include public charter and private schools, as of early Jan., many school leaders said they have not yet seen that plan.

When a student has two or more symptoms of COVID-19, they must either quarantine for two weeks or get two negative tests.

What Would Shut Schools Down
Schools are all clear what would shut them down, and it isn’t always a positive COVID-19 test. Both St. Peter and Stanton Elementary have had staff members either test positive for COVID-19 or come in contact with someone who has. But that did not shut down in-person learning as a result. In each case, it was support staff who had little or no contact with the students; none of the schools reported a positive test result from a student.

Since November 2020 there have been 76 COVID cases in adults and 20 in students from the 62 DCPS schools offering learning in-person, said Chancellor Lewis Ferebee at a DC Council roundtable Jan. 21. Most of the afflicted adults were part of security and custodial staff, he added. 13 student cases were detected by the DCPS asymptomatic testing protocol, and 7 were reported by parents.

In those cases, schools say they contacted DC Health for instruction. Staff members went into quarantine and could return after two negative test results. None of the cases closed down the school.

All schools say that the obvious flag for closure would be a District return to Phase I of COVID restrictions, to a stay-at-home order. “Context matters, and so it depends on the situation,” said Burke Headmaster Dean, “I’m not going to question the guidance of DC Health.”

Some schools have already made the decision to close for the short term, citing expected holiday travel or increases in COVID-19 rates across the District. St. Peter decided that with community spread and case rates increasing, rather than holding individuals accountable after the holiday weekend, the whole school would simply go to virtual learning for the first two weeks of January, “just to make sure,” Principal Clay said.

Although they had not had a positive test result in the community, as COVID-19 cases rose through November, Sojourner Truth made a decision to return to 100 percent virtual learning until January, and then reassess. “We felt good about our eight weeks and the on-campus experience we were able to provide,” Leek said. “But as soon as staff started to show some concern, we wanted to honor that.”

The schools say they recognize the importance of meeting educational needs. “We hesitate to close school because we know that we are keeping students safe within our building,” Clay said, “as long as the parents are okay with that.”

“The challenges are real,” said Stanton’s Principal McCray. “Not only are students getting the educational learning, you’re also getting the food, the love, the support —all the things that a child needs to thrive. Everybody just doesn’t thrive in front of a screen.”

Learn more about DC Health Phase Two In-Person Recommendations by visiting coronavirus.dc.gov. See the Edmund Burke School COVID dashboard at https://www.burkeschool.org/ Learn more about Sojourner Truth PCS at thetruthschool.org. Learn about Stanton Elementary at stantones.org/ and more about CARES classrooms at https://dcpsreopenstrong.com/schedule/care/.