by Mark Moran
This was to have been the first day of in-school instruction for thousands of DC children. Instead, DC Public Schools (DCPS) has withdrawn plans for the November 9 partial reopening after outcry from parents, teachers, and school administrators.
In a November 2 email to the DCPS community, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee wrote that DCPS was continuing its plans for opening CARE classrooms “as soon as staffing plans are confirmed.” A CARE classroom is an in-school setting where children learn remotely with supervision. It is specifically reserved for students who cannot learn at home because their working parents cannot be at home, or for other reasons.
The in-school instruction plan would have returned some pre-K and elementary school teachers to the classroom, and was reserved for special education and homeless students as well as English-language learners.
“Families who already accepted an in-person learning seat will have the option to join a CARE Classroom first,” Ferebee wrote. “Then, we will outreach to additional families with seat offers. We will be in contact with families directly on next steps.”
Ward 3 educational leaders who spoke with Forest Hills Connection expressed relief that the reopening plan was withdrawn but continued to be skeptical about many details relating to CARE classrooms, such as whether school buildings will be safe, who will be supervising the CARE classrooms, and what exactly the learning day will look like.
More generally, educational leaders expressed a deep dissatisfaction with what they say is the lack of transparency about DCPS planning from the first, and the failure to consult with teachers and principals who might have helped navigate the complexities of opening schools in the midst of a pandemic in a way that would have been more acceptable.
Prior to the withdrawal of the reopening plan, State Board of Education Chair Ruth Wattenberg said concern about the plan was wide and deep. She told an October 28 virtual meeting of the Ward 3-Wilson Education Network (W3EdNet) that she has received an enormous volume of email from “people who are distressed about what is happening and the different ways [the reopening plan] is going to impact kids, parents and teachers.”
She added, “There are also people who are desperate to get the schools re-opened for at least some kids. I have a lot of sympathy for that. We need to figure out something at least for some kids as soon as possible.”
“When you have a hard problem, the golden rule is to engage the people closest to it, who understand how to fix things,” she said. “What is disappointing is how little of that happened.”
“To not even talk to the principals – who found out about the plan the day it was announced – is just crazy,” Wattenberg said.
In comments after that meeting, W3EdNet co-chair Melody Molinoff said one overriding problem with the reopening plan was that without additional teaching staff it would add to the burden of teachers still conducting remote learning. If there are two pre-K classes with 20 children in each, one teacher would be required to go back into the building to teach 10 students, while the teacher in the second classroom would have to absorb ten additional virtual learners.
“It doesn’t work from many angles,” Molinoff said.
At the meeting, Molinoff noted that outside of Ward 3 and among minority communities where COVID is having a disproportionate effect, people are extremely skeptical about the safety of returning to in-school learning.
“We think about our personal needs and that is the lens through which we are operating,” she said. “But I would ask all of us to look holistically at this reopening and how it will impact all kids across DCPS.”
In an open letter to Mayor Bowser and Chancellor Ferebee, Richard Jackson, president of the local Council of School Officers (representing DC school principals) detailed a lengthy list of problems with the DCPS plan.
“Principals and teachers know their students and know who is the most in need,” he wrote. “They have had no voice, no input, and no time to recommend which students are more vulnerable and more in need. They were given 10 hours to confirm the list provided to them after the lottery, and the appeal process which was outlined did not occur. Additionally, results were released to families prior to school input.”
In comments to Forest Hills Connection, Kelly Crabtree – fifth grade teacher at Murch Elementary and co-representative from Murch to the teacher’s union — said teachers were relieved that the reopening plan was rescinded at least temporarily. But she said a host of challenges remain when the mayor exerts unchecked authority over schools with so little transparency.
“We have shown we have a strong and unifying voice for teachers,” she said. “We are going to fight for what is best for our kids and our teachers. We still have a long road ahead.”