After months of planning, protests and false starts, D.C. students and teachers head to classes for first time in nearly a year
Precious Ogbunike waits to screen Josh Ramirez, 14, on the first day of in-person classes at Columbia Heights Education Campus in Northwest Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
By Perry Stein, Lauren Lumpkin, Joe Heim and Laura Meckler
Feb. 2, 2021 at 5:33 p.m. EST
After months of planning — of false starts, teacher protests, arbitration, a court filing and a final snow delay — D.C. public schools opened their doors to teachers and students for in-person learning Tuesday for the first time in nearly a year.
Until doors opened, officials were unsure whether teachers, many angry and fearful about reopening, would show up. But they did, for the most part, as students toting school supplies and parents caught between relief and nervousness arrived at D.C. schools.
In the region’s first districtwide attempt at reopening, the majority of students remained virtual Tuesday, with many families not comfortable returning and others not offered slots in the limited return plan. The city was expecting more than 9,000 of the school system’s 52,000 students in school buildings this week, but attendance was low on the first day, in part due to a two-hour snow delay.
The majority of charter students, who account for more than 45 percent of the city’s public school population, stayed home as their schools are sticking with virtual learning for now. Still, it marked a long-awaited reopening day that city leaders hope will lead to more students in school buildings.
“We’re very happy to have children back in the building and our staff is very excited to welcome them,” said Lisa Rosado, principal at Savoy Elementary in Southeast Washington. “It’s not a school unless we have kids here.”
At Savoy, which is located in a low-income part of the city where demand for in-person learning was relatively low, 54 of the school’s more than 250 students signed up for in-person learning. But only 10 showed up Tuesday morning. Rosado expects more to attend on Thursday — Wednesday is an all-virtual-learning day at the school. The families who did come said their students struggled with distance learning and were ready to return.
“I’m just super excited. I could scream at the top of my lungs,” Tiera Hill said after she dropped off her second-grader and two kindergartners, and comforted her 3-year-old daughter, who was sad about not being able to go to school with her siblings.
On the other side of the city, in a wealthy swath of Northwest Washington, a steady stream of students with backpacks and parents toting bins and bags with first-day-of-school supplies arrived to check-in spots set up alongside the snow-covered playground at Murch Elementary.
Demand for in-person learning was high at the school, with so many families returning that the school needed to employ an alternating schedule for two groups of students to adhere to social distancing rules.
“Welcome back!” Principal Chris Cebrzynski told families as they approached, pointing them to the proper doors, depending on grade level, and checking for student health forms. “Have a great day!”
He said he is confident the school will succeed in carrying out a long list of virus mitigation strategies.
“I’ve got plenty of experience with schedules and all the logistics and all that stuff, so that’s piece of cake,” Cebrzynski said. “As far as social distancing, it’s like teaching math or anything else. We’ve got to teach and model and practice, and kids are great.”
The first day of school during the coronavirus pandemic — pushed to Tuesday instead of Monday because of the region’s snowstorm — was clouded by virus fears and an increasingly strained relationship between the city and the Washington Teachers’ Union, whose 4,000 teachers largely oppose the return to school. About 1,800 teachers were assigned to go back to classrooms.
The school system feared that teachers could unravel the reopening plans, and requested Monday that a judge grant a temporary restraining order against the union to stop any talk of a strike.
“It is going to erode what trust we have tried to build with D.C. Public Schools,” Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis said at a news conference Tuesday morning with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union.
Davis said she encouraged her teachers to show up for in-person learning Tuesday if they could and warned she would closely monitor any complaints that teachers lodge about safety conditions. She said they want the city to be more transparent about building repairs, calling for more thorough walk-throughs of school buildings with teachers and parents.
Davis said the union would be taking a vote on what — if any — collective action the union wants to take in opposition to the reopening plan, which most teachers are against.
Adam Severs, a first-grade teacher at Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Northwest Washington, does not believe schools should reopen but still showed up Tuesday. He said he is in a newly renovated building and thinks his school administrators have properly implemented safety measures, but he fears for his colleagues in older buildings.
Severs and most of his colleagues received their first coronavirus vaccine dose last week as part of the mayor’s plan to prioritize teachers.
He said parents of some of his students have emailed him, saying that they are praying for his safety and that their children fear he will contract the virus.
“I don’t think they should be opening their doors until community spread is at a safer level or until teachers get both their vaccine doses,” Severs said.
Bree-Anna Joseph teaches her 10th-grade English class at Columbia Heights Education Campus on Tuesday. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
Students’ days will not be uniform, with every school designing its own reopening plan. In parts of the city where demand is high for in-person learning, elementary students may be reporting to classrooms for only a few hours in the morning, with another group coming in the afternoon. Some students will go full time. At the middle school and high school levels, some students may be reporting to classrooms for only a few hours each week to receive academic support or to take a technical education class in person.
The city said it spent $34 million to make buildings safer, with much of that coming from federal relief funding. School will look very different. Students will be grouped in strict cohorts of no more than 11, whom they will be with whenever they are in school buildings. There are mask mandates and tape around desks, an attempt to ensure that no one breaches the six-foot social-distancing rule.
With most students choosing to continue with distance learning, some teachers will be leading in-person classes, while streaming them to students at home at the same time.
At Columbia Heights Education Campus, colorful posters printed with bilingual greetings welcomed a few dozen middle- and high-schoolers back.
Roughly 350 students — about 25 percent of the school’s population — will return on different schedules, staggered throughout the week to limit the number of people in the building, said Maria Tukeva, the school’s principal. Tuesday’s group comprised about 40 high-schoolers and 14 middle-schoolers, the principal said.
Katherine Bonilla gets directions from assistant principal Taylor West at Columbia Heights Education Campus. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
Assistant principal Oliver Jones shows a student where to get his heath screening at Columbia Heights Education Campus. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
Katherine Bonilla, 16, said she was excited to be back at school after having difficulties with online learning. Her mom had concerns about Bonilla being back in a school building, but the 10th-grader wanted to experience it for herself, she said.
“Virtual learning didn’t work for me,” Bonilla said. “I told [my mom], I’m going to just see how it’s going to be.”
Iyanu Abubu wanted to join her classmates in person for fourth grade at Murch, but her mom, Tobi Abubu, wasn’t sure. She described her feelings as “relieved but anxious.”
Still, she didn’t hesitate to send Iyanu back. “I’m a single mom, so I needed the extra help. I didn’t have much of a choice.”
Kevin McGilly said he was “delighted” that his foster son, Antwon, got a seat for in-person learning at Eastern High School. Antwon has special education needs and takes classes to prepare him to live an independent life as an adult. McGilly said he is a social teenager known by everyone at school and that he had missed school and was eager to return.
McGilly said that Antwon had been slipping behind and that his reading and math skills are exactly where they were three years ago. Still, Antwon would be reporting to school for one class half a day per week.
“Two Fridays ago, restaurants reopened for indoor dining,” McGilly said. “And my kid was invited to go back to school for a half a day a week. I still think there is something wrong with that.”
Quiana Barnes is among the many parents in the city not ready to send her children back to school. The mother of three students at Savoy Elementary School was waiting outside the building Tuesday morning for a replacement charger for her son’s computer.
“As a mom, I’m just scared about covid. I have a son with bad asthma and I don’t want to risk it,” Barnes said. She said she was glad the school was open and happy for the kids who were back in the classroom, but she wasn’t prepared to send her children back yet.
“I just can’t do it,” she said.
And she is satisfied with her children continuing to learn from home.
“To me, that has been great. I have been able to see the teachers interact with the students and they’re very patient with them,” she said. “My kids have been learning, so I’m happy about it.”