By Erika Bryant, Executive Director, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School
After sharing pleasantries and updates from the previous weekend, I began one of my Monday morning check-ins with my school’s network leadership team this summer by declaring: “This is a no-win situation.” I was referring to our reopening/re-entry plans for the school year 2020-21 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. My sentiment was that no matter how we plan to resume school in a few short weeks—with 100% virtual learning, with in-person cohorts, or some combination of the two—schools, teachers/staff, families, and students will be in a precarious position—a situation where no one really wins.
Located in Washington, DC, my school, the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, a 22-year-old language-immersion, International Baccalaureate–-authorized charter school rooted in a mission of social justice, announced to our school community in mid-June that we would begin the 2020-21 school year in a 100% virtual learning mode. We shared that our classroom teachers would teach remotely and our students would access instruction remotely. However, we explained that, true to our mission, we would invite a small cohort of students with the greatest need into the buildings for in-person attendance and supervision. To determine which students to invite, our student support team carefully crafted a list of selection criteria, including but not limited to: students with special needs, children of essential workers, students who had extra difficulty with distance learning in the spring, and students who would have no supervision at home. Invited students would be supervised by school employees; however, they would also engage in remote learning from the school buildings. We did not make this decision in haste but with a great deal of thought and deliberation.
We took into consideration the complex nature of our language immersion program where all of our students in Pre-K 3 through 5th grade study in either English and Spanish or English and French, and all classes require at least two adults in the room. We considered the physical spaces of our school buildings. We closely followed the health and safety guidance of federal and local officials. We also began surveying our parents and staff about their needs and opinions early in the pandemic, even before Mayor Bowser’s official health emergency declaration. We continued to collect survey information through April, May, and into June—to the point that we all suffered from survey fatigue.
Through survey results we learned which families needed devices, internet access, and technical support as well as support with food and other resources. We learned which families and staff were comfortable returning to the buildings in the new school year and who preferred to stay at home because of underlying health issues or fear of contracting and exposing high-risk loved ones to the virus. We learned which families could not work remotely. We also learned through word of mouth who, within our school community, contracted the virus or had family members who contracted and/or succumbed to the virus.
Because of the close-knit nature of our school community and the fact that we are educators, we genuinely wanted to return to school in August to teach and learn in our buildings. We miss being able to interact with our students on a daily basis, giving them fist-bumps in the morning and seeing the light in their eyes when they grasp a concept for the first time. We miss being able to collaborate in-person with our colleagues. And honestly, who really likes to be in Zoom meetings all day, every day? But through the data that we collected, we determined that we could not deliver a quality academic program and keep our students and staff safe at the same time given the current constraints of the virus.
So, we devised this plan B—which also inherently is flawed. After making the decision to begin the school year with 100% virtual learning, we subscribed to new online learning platforms—including French and Spanish online learning platforms—that will facilitate the transition to and from in-person attendance and remote learning. We also leased new devices for all students and staff. But we know that this is not enough and that some of our students will suffer more than others because of our decision. So, now our team is working to collect resources and put additional measures in place for the students and families we know will need them the most while we continue to teach and learn remotely.
Making this decision has caused many sleepless nights for me and our school’s leadership team over the past several months. It’s a no-win situation but it’s the best that we can do for now—until we can do better.