D.C. Public School Starts Today — With All Buildings Closed

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An empty Hyde-Addison Elementary at 3219 O St. NW on Aug. 31., the first day of public school in D.C. Photo by Peggy Sands.

For students of all ages, the first day of school is a remembered, often unique event. Unique it certainly has been in Georgetown the past four years.  

In the fall of 2017, The Georgetowner covered the first day of busing for some 300 Hyde-Addison Elementary School students — some as young as 4 years old — as they departed in big yellow buses. The trying-not-to-look-too-concerned parents waved goodbye in front of the closed campus on P Street that was about to be completely renovated. Most were skeptical that it would reopen in two years, as DC Public Schools had promised.

But two years later, on Aug. 29, 2019, The Georgetowner covered the joyous opening of the new, top-of-the-line building, complete with the latest computerized whiteboards, a convertible cafeteria, gym, auditorium and large classrooms. 

Now, a year later, the coronavirus has changed all that. 

On Monday, Aug. 31, mandatory school began for most of D.C.’s some 50,000 students, including Hyde-Addison’s. But this time, no one will be going to the beautiful new building. “We will be moving forward with an all-virtual start to the school year for students in pre-K through the 12th grade through Term One, until Nov. 6,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn announced on Aug. 27.

“We are excited for kids to be able to be in front of their teachers, see their classmates and have new learning material this term,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at her press conference on Aug. 31. But it will all be online. “Additional tech help phone lines are being added as we speak,” she announced. Apparently, there were problems with passwords. 

Attendance will be checked. Students must log on daily between 6 a.m. and 11:59 a.m. to be counted present. Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers will follow bell schedules of roughly five and a half hours of teaching each day. Student participation will also be gauged by students’ completion of assignments and participation in real-time classes.   

It was not clear if student work would be graded. “Our team is not looking for perfection from students or families,” Hyde-Addison Principal Calvin Hooks wrote in his welcome newsletter online. “We recognize and respect the learning curve.”   

The District has been preparing all summer to identify students in need of technology. More than 15,000 computers were distributed by August and some 5,000 hotspots identified. But on Thursday, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee announced that 60 percent of parents surveyed said they did not have equipment for their children. Officials urged parents to contact the schools for devices. Ideally, all students should be able to get DCPS programs online with their student ID and have a device with a keyboard and, if possible, headphones.  

Most charter school networks, including the two largest, KIPP DC and Friendship, also will offer classes only online, although some smaller ones are offering some hybrid in-person instruction. Some Catholic elementary schools such as Holy Trinity in Georgetown started all-virtual classes on Aug. 25. No child care before or after school is being offered, however. Private day care centers are being encouraged to work cooperatively with public school parents about schedules.  

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at their schools can pick up meals for several days at one time at their school or through the charter school system, according to DCPS. Pickup will be more restricted than during the summer, requiring identification of guardians picking up multiple meals. 

The second term for DCPS students is scheduled to begin on Monday, Nov. 9, if medical conditions warrant, according to school officials. But it isn’t clear what the medical parameters are for determining when it is safe to go back. Clearly, it’s gone from flattening the curve to the increase in the number of cases and who may get infected. Other factors such as the severity of illness are still being considered, though hospitalization and death rates have all been decreasing in the D.C. area to well below the national average. Teachers’ unions have threatened strikes if teacher safety is not better considered.   

“There are a lot of things that a system the size of DCPS has to consider when making these decisions, including staffing, including parent confidence, including the facilities’ availability,” Mayor Bowser said at a press briefing on Aug. 26.  

But all that is beyond the scope of most children. A new Hyde-Addison student was excited about just being in front of the school with her parents on Sunday afternoon. “This is my school,” she excitedly told The Georgetowner. She knew her teacher’s name and was exuberant about the chance to meet him. She listed all the things in her new box of supplies from the school, including colored pencils, glue and playdough.    

“Children just live in the present,” her mom said. “She doesn’t know how things are supposed to be. She’s just excited about what is. Maybe that’s the best way to handle school days in 2020.” 

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