By Shannon Hodge, Founding Executive Director, DC Charter School Alliance
No one wanted the school year to start this way. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, deeply affecting communities of color here in DC. Families who have experienced COVID-19 firsthand, lived in fear of their exposure, and lost loved ones now have to grapple with ensuring that their children thrive educationally in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
For teachers, staff, and school leaders, there is no substitute for the energy of a classroom full of eager, engaged students. And yet there is no higher priority than keeping students and communities safe. After planning for fully in-person learning, fully distanced learning, and everything in between, charter school leaders will begin the school year with solutions designed to meet the needs of their unique communities. For most, that means online learning.
In this largely virtual environment and with the threat of COVID-19 peeking around every corner, schools and leaders must innovate to educate effectively and equitably. DC’s charter school leaders have risen to the challenge. Right now, school teams are distributing meal kits and loading buses with groceries for families, students are picking up school supplies and devices, and teachers are preparing their virtual classrooms.
And in spite of the pandemic, school traditions continue. For example, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS in Wards 5 and 7 and Rocketship Rise Academy PCS in Ward 8 hosted their annual school year kick-off parades, socially distanced this year to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and community members.
Five new charter schools are welcoming students this year: Capital Village PCS in Ward 5; Girls Global Academy PCS in Ward 2; I Dream PCS in Ward 7; Social Justice PCS in Ward 5; and Sojourner Truth PCS in Ward 5. The leaders of these schools, which all received charter approval before the pandemic, are rising to the challenge of starting new schools, welcoming hundreds of new students and families, training new faculty and staff, and building new communities in these unprecedented times.
Charter schools serve more than 80% of the adult students in the District. Adult students’ needs during COVID-19 are different from those of many other students. Adult students are navigating these complex times as parents, caregivers, and heads of households, prioritizing their children’s and families’ well-being and education over their own, and coping with long-term unemployment. The charter schools serving adult students are supporting their students who are parents by helping them navigate at-home learning. Adult charter schools are also increasing the digital elements of their training programs so that students who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 can reenter the workforce with skills that will help them remain employed even during a pandemic.
COVID-19 is the gift that no one wanted. It has upended our world, exposed fault lines that we have long ignored, and tested our resilience at every turn. And each day brings new headlines about the challenges that schools face as leaders make difficult decisions in far less than ideal circumstances. DC’s charter school leaders face the same challenges as their counterparts across the country and across the world. Yet they have one advantage that many of their counterparts lack: the freedom and flexibility to design solutions tailored to fit the needs of their students and communities. At no time in recent history have those foundations of charter schools been more important to the District’s educational system. With them, charter leaders across the city can continue to help students thrive, even during this global pandemic, by responding to the specific needs of their school communities.