The Racial Disparities over Who Is Returning to D.C. Classrooms Puts Equity Spotlight on Reopening Plan
Perry Stein, Washington Post, January 31, 2021
D.C. schools are set to reopen this week for the first time in nearly a year, with schools in wealthier wards at maximum capacity while seats remain empty in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, because families there have opted in high numbers to stay home and continue with virtual learning.
The partial reopening is a relief to families of all incomes, but the mismatch across the city has teachers and parents questioning whether the city should be pouring resources during the pandemic into an in-person learning program that White students are disproportionately enrolling in.
Across the country, Black and Hispanic communities have been hit hardest by the virus, and many of these families have told their school districts they do not feel safe sending their children back to school buildings. In D.C., families in the poorest ward rejected offers for an elementary school spot at twice the rate of families in the wealthiest one, according to city data.
Still, the District’s public school population is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, and most students returning are students of color.
The city’s reopening plan is capped at just 15,000 of the school system’s 52,000 students, some of whom were invited to come back to a classroom just once a week for a few hours. Only 9,200 students have accepted seats to return.
Students are preparing to return Monday as the teachers union and city continue to spar, with the union arguing it is not safe to return to school buildings and making a last-minute attempt to delay the reopening date. Snow also threatens to derail the long-awaited start.
Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said school buildings are safe, health metrics allow for students to return, and school will open as planned.
Principals were able to offer slots to anyone, but Ferebee had directed them to prioritize students at highest risk for academic failure, a broad group that includes students whose families receive food stamps. At some schools, nearly all of the children are considered at-risk. At others, it’s less than 10 percent.
Of the elementary students expected to return to classrooms, 60 percent are homeless, learning English as a second language, receiving special education services or designated as at-risk, which means they are in foster care or their families qualify for public assistance. At the middle and high school level, 70 percent of students fall into one of these categories.
White children, who make up 16 percent of the D.C. school system’s population, are a minority of the total number of students expected to return to classrooms — 28 percent of the 6,300 children at the prekindergarten and elementary level, according to city data — but a larger percentage of them chose in-person learning.
As a result, some campuses in the wealthiest neighborhoods have most of their students — hundreds of children — returning. And on the other side of the Anacostia River, some schools have just a couple dozen students listed.
Ferebee said he believes the city’s public education system has an obligation to offer in-person learning as an option to children, even if most families do not want it. City leaders view this as the first step to more expansive in-person learning offerings. If the school system can pull it off, more families may want to join.
“The reality is that as African Americans — and I can speak clearly to this — our health outcomes have not been the same as our peers, and a lot of that is related to systemic racism,” said Ferebee, who is Black. “Every child is different, and every circumstance is different.”
But many teachers and parents say the plan is not helping the students who need it the most and argue that bringing back 45 percent of the teacher workforce to serve 17 percent of students could make virtual classes worse for everyone. Some virtual learning classes sizes would grow to accommodate the smaller in-person classes needed to comply with health guidelines. Some teachers will now be teaching in-person classes while students at home log in to join.
Interviews with parents and education activists across the city show that the decision of whether to send a child to a classroom during a pandemic is deeply personal and complicated, reflecting disparate family circumstances.
School leaders and neighborhood activists said some families want to return, but without after care, the parents couldn’t manage a pickup at 3 p.m. Others have children at multiple schools, including charter schools, and didn’t get slots for all of them.
Some said they found alternative and consistent child-care options — and the school system, which already canceled reopening plans twice, didn’t seem like a reliable choice.
Sharra Greer, policy director at the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group that provides free legal services to D.C. children from low-income families, said most of her clients are struggling with virtual learning but declined a slot for-person classes because they didn’t feel safe.