by Mark Moran
Skepticism and disillusionment about purported plans to return to in-person learning in November marked comments by parents in the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network (W3EdNet) during a virtual meeting of the network on September 21st.
Parents also expressed concern about “digital equity” and what many said was the failure of DC Public Schools (DCPS) to ensure that students and teachers were supplied with technology needed to conduct and participate in distance learning. They also cited significant problems associated with use of the Microsoft Teams platform to conduct learning, and distrust of official attendance statistics.
“There are significant challenges with distance learning,” W3EdNet co-chair Melody Molinoff told Forest Hills Connection after the meeting. “Our individual schools are doing a great job scaling up the virtual classroom environment, but technology is a significant impediment.”
She added that logging on and staying connected using Teams software has proven difficult for learners, and some teachers are alternating between Teams and Zoom software.
“Teams is creating barriers to student attendance and in some cases, it is very difficult to conduct classes due to system lags and glitches,” she said.
Molinoff said digital equity is a top advocacy priority of the network. She said individual schools have been tasked with ensuring teachers have the necessary technology, but many teachers are using their own computers – with associated problems of security – or outdated school equipment. “We are advocating that DCPS central office should be prioritizing access and centrally funding teacher access [to technology],” she said.
During the meeting, parents roundly praised teachers and principals at individual schools for extraordinary performance in a time of unprecedented challenges, devising innovative ways to create community in a remote learning environment. But they expressed disillusionment with DCPS and apprehension about the future return to in-person or hybrid learning, and what specifically a hybrid learning environment would look like.
“I have zero confidence that we are opening in November,” said one parent.
Ruth Wattenberg, the president of the State Board of Education and its Ward 3 representative, said there is enormous concern about ventilation in school buildings in the event of a return to in-person learning. She said it was vital for the city to have outside inspectors to sign-off on the safety of ventilation systems in order to ensure confidence among teachers and parents.
“Confidence building is super important,” Wattenberg said. “If you don’t have someone independent signing-off you have a confidence problem.”
DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson acknowledged that return to in-person learning was unlikely although some form of hybrid learning may be possible. He said uncertainty about the future was driven by uncertainty about the pandemic itself and the possibility of a “second wave” of infections in the fall and winter months.
“We are in stage 2 [of re-opening],” he said. “The numbers [of cases, hospitalizations and deaths] are comforting in that we are not like Georgia or Florida or Texas, but we are not getting to stage 3 any time soon. “We all want to see the schools re-open but how exactly will that happen? We just don’t know…. No one has seen a second spike yet. It’s hard for DCPS to be specific when there is so much uncertainty.”
Mendelson said the Council will be holding a series of public meetings on the subject of distance learning and return to hybrid or in-person learning beginning on Friday, October 2 at 9 a.m. with a virtual Education and Committee of the Whole public oversight hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to hear from community stakeholders and government agencies about the roll out of distance learning during the ongoing public health emergency. The committees are especially interested in hearing about digital access, the quality of learning, and understanding how schools are ensuring student attendance and engagement.
Other topics discussed at the W3EdNet meeting included the possible effect of Covid-19 on enrollment. Parents at some schools, where enrollment has dipped because of the pandemic, expressed concern about admitting families on wait lists and the complications such as overcrowding that may result in the event of a return to “normal.” Also discussed was DCPS funding for purchase of Georgetown Day School and the construction of a new Foxhall Elementary School.
The Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network is made up of PTO, HSA, LSAT, and other interested community members from schools in the Wilson High School feeder pattern. The W3EdNet seeks to build ties among their school communities, share information among school leaders, and promote a better public school system for all Washingtonians. The network includes representatives from 12 elementary schools (Bancroft, Eaton, Hearst, Hyde-Addison, Janney, Francis Scott Key, Lafayette, Murch, Horace Mann, Oyster-Adams, Sheppard, Stoddert); Hardy Middle School, Alice Deal Middle School, and Wilson High.