(By Phuttharak_Shutterstock_1779117098)

By Cassandra Matthews

After a very difficult year for our city, DC Public Schools (DCPS) is starting to reopen school buildings for students. As the grandmother of three school-aged children, I could not be happier. Children belong in school. And DCPS has shown they can do it safely.

My five-year-old grandson, Mahri, attends Moten Elementary School, near where we live in Ward 8. Last school year, because of special learning needs, Mahri received support services three days a week and they made a real difference in his learning. He thrived academically and emotionally.

When COVID-19 hit and school buildings closed, those services went away. Mahri struggled with online learning. His teachers worked hard to support him, but a five-year-old is not made to sit in front of a computer for hours. Young children need social stimulation, hands-on care from teachers, and a joyful learning environment.

Distance learning, simply put, did not work for Mahri. I fear it is not working for other children too.

My heart breaks for the children in my community who have gone so long without being in the safe, supportive environment of their school. In too much of Wards 7 and 8, and a lot of other parts of DC, children face hardship.

Many go hungry, which is why last spring I picked up meals for the kids in my neighborhood whose parents had to go to work and couldn’t get them to local food distribution sites.

Many face violence and worse at home. Because they’re out of school, we don’t know just how dark this year has been for children.

Ward 7 and 8 children and families are hurting the most from the pandemic. More folks are getting sick and dying here East of the River from COVID-19. People are losing their jobs. My family hasn’t been spared these outcomes.

Mahri’s mother, my daughter, who has always worked since she went to college, had to quit her job at FedEx to support Mahri’s learning. For the first time ever, she had to apply for TANF benefits. She also contracted COVID-19 in December. While she has thankfully recovered, quarantine was hard for my family.

Things have always been hard, but they just seem to be getting harder. Sometimes it feels like nobody cares about what Mayor Barry called “the last, the lost and the least.”

That’s why, when we heard that Mahri would be able to return to school in person at the beginning of February, I was at first skeptical. I saw the rates of COVID-19 infections around the country increasing. I thought to myself, “How are they actually going to do this?”

Then I saw Moten Elementary School’s safety plan and all the work that was going into reopening safely. We discussed it as a family and decided he would go back.

We, most of all Mahri, are glad that we made that decision. It feels like the start of going back to normal and a rebuilding from the hardships that my family and my neighbors are going through.

Mahri is once again the joyful, engaged learner that he was last year. He is receiving his supplemental learning support, speech therapy and, most importantly, love and care from his teachers. Mahri comes home from school happy and ready for the next day.

I’ve lived in Atlantic Terrace for 30 years. I know my community and I know its children. I know the challenges they face and how much harder they seem today. I also know what is possible for graduates of DCPS — both of my children graduated from DCPS and went on to college. I want that same future for my grandchildren.

But to do that, children must get a great education. Children need to interact with teachers in person and they need to play with kids. They need the in-person school experience to learn.

I pray that by next school year the whole city is able to get back to normal schooling. Mahri is thriving being back in school, and all of DC’s students deserve that opportunity.

Cassandra Matthews
Atlantic Terrace Apartments Resident
Grandmother of 3 DC public school students