An empty classroom

District of Columbia Schools (DCPS) students, parents, administrators and educators alike are testing the waters in preparation for mandatory, in-person classes next year. (Photo by Talibah Chikwendu)

By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO

As District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) students complete an abbreviated summer school session, parents and schools are testing the waters to prepare for mandatory in-person classroom experiences this fall.

DC Public Schools parent, Kathy Symes said at first she was hesitant about sending her two children, back to Whittier Elementary, but the glow on her children’s faces after returning to school helped to change her mind.

“We’ll give the summer program a try – it’s three weeks” she said.   Symes sent her oldest son, Ashton, age 6, back to in-person learning in April, but wanted to make sure the moment was right before sending her youngest, Triston, age 4 to an in-person classroom setting. “Initially, I was hesitant, but I talked with the principal; I saw there was a protocol in place; there were temperature checks, said Symes.

“I talked to a couple of other moms and after that first day, seeing how happy my son was, convinced me this was the best thing to do,” she said.

The DC Public Schools Summer Acceleration Academies is completing short one-to-four week sessions between now and early August. The summer sessions, held at 114 school sites throughout the District of Columbia are intentionally starting with a small cadre of students – only 10 to 35% of the school’s total population.

The summer programs are focused on academic learning and social-emotional support experiences to acclimate students to re-enter group instruction while addressing challenges students may have experienced during the up to 15 months they were at-home or in other on-line learning situations.

Whittier Elementary School Principal, Tiffany Johnson knows that her parents need to be re-connected to the school setting as much as her students.

“We are ready for them all to come back, but we recognize 15 months is a long time,” she said.

Johnson compared school-parent communication with good doctor-patient relations. “You want to get check-ups with your doctor now, instead of waiting for an autopsy,” she added.

At Whittier Elementary and school sites across the District, Restorative Justice school staff and Attendance Counselors are working throughout the summer to conduct check-ins with parents.

The approach is to support parents rather than confront them about the requirement for all children to be engaged in face-to-face learning this fall.

“We are asking parents what do you need from us to make sure your student is successful” Johnson said?

Johnson offered that her parents have registered a variety of needs including connection with community-based resources, daily check-ins and goal setting. “Some of our parents want our help with simply re-establishing daily and weekly routines – having something to look forward to,” she said.

DC Public Schools funds the Summer Acceleration Academics with support from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, the Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act and the American Recovery Plan (ARP).  DC Public Schools Superintendent, Lewis Ferebee required schools to host community forums earlier this year to extend parents and community members with the opportunity to weigh-in on priorities for the summer programs.

Whitter Elementary PTA President and parent, Julie Lawson said her son’s decision to return to in-person learning was a “game changer”.  She understands parents’ concerns but said her son is thriving with the enhanced social interaction at school.

“He’s got peers that he can talk to. He feels understood,” said Lawson. “It’s great for him to have experiences out of the home that he can talk with me about at the end of the day,” Lawson said

As PTA president, Lawson said she has spoken with many parents about their lingering concerns to return their students to in-person learning in the fall. “I’ve been talking to other parents. Yes, there is concern about the fact that the kids have not had the vaccine yet .

“But the school has been extremely transparent, there was only one case of transmission at Whitter from November 2020 until.  Every parent is kept well informed,” Lawson said.

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