Principals critical of D.C. school system’s plan to reopen elementary schools


Under the D.C. schools chancellor’s plan to reopen elementary schools next month, three of the middle school’s four behavioral technicians are expected to be reassigned to an elementary campus to supervise students participating in distance learning from their classrooms, according to the school’s principal, Louise Jones. The fourth will be dispatched part time. Jones said she was informed that the school system may reassign as many as nine McKinley nonteaching staff members — including an assistant principal — to elementary campuses.

The removal of the behavioral technicians illustrates what school principals say are the damaging consequences of the city’s plan to reopen elementary schools. They argue that city leaders are temporarily removing key members of middle and high school staffs just as their campuses are settling into virtual learning. They also fear that the plan could imperil hopes of reopening middle and high schools by next semester, since many staff members being reassigned are critical to crafting reopening plans.

Jones is also the principal of McKinley Technology High, which is expected to have six staff members reassigned. Cardozo Education Campus could lose 17 staff members to the plan, the school’s principal told families in a letter this week. And Roosevelt High School is anticipating that 12 staff members will be reassigned, including some nonteaching staff members who help teachers provide support to Spanish-speaking students and parents, a teacher said at a community meeting this week.

And principals — who generally are reluctant to speak out against the chancellor — are publicly critical, calling for the school system to change its plans.

“My school kids are losing ground just like every other kid,” Jones said. “I don’t want to downplay the dire straits that our elementary school kids are facing, but I don’t think taking away resources from middle and high schools kids is the answer — at least not in the numbers they are asking.”

The school district’s reopening plan would bring 7,000 elementary school students back to classrooms for in-person learning starting Nov. 9. About 14,000 students would return later in the month to classrooms — called CARE classrooms — to participate in distance learning under the supervision of nonteaching staff.

But Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee has struggled to reach an agreement with the teachers union on the reopening plan and it is unclear whether he has the numbers to staff the elementary school classrooms. One of the main disagreements is whether in-person teaching should be optional — even for those who are healthy and do not live with someone considered high-risk for coronavirus complications. Ferebee told the D.C. Council last week that in-person teaching should not be optional for these employees and has said he will move forward with reopening plans even if he does not reach an agreement with the union.

The city is also working to staff the CARE classrooms, which is why it is turning to middle and high school staffers. On Tuesday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sent a letter to employees at eight city agencies that work with children, asking for volunteers to staff the classrooms.

“We are reviewing the feedback we’ve received and will follow up with our school leaders on next steps,” the school system said in a statement.

The city has not disclosed how many middle and high school employees it plans to use in CARE classrooms. Justin Ralston, the principal of Roosevelt High School, told families at a meeting about reopening plans this week that he understands the need to prioritize elementary school students for in-person learning. He had already made contact with the five elementary schools that feed into Roosevelt about how their schools could partner, but he was concerned about losing staff members under this plan.

“We are working on identifying the potential impact this will have on our school community — which will be significant,” Ralston said at the meeting, which was conducted online.

The city’s principals say the problems with the reopening plan go beyond staffing. The union representing principals wrote a letter to city leaders arguing that the plan does not serve students “furthest from opportunity,” which Ferebee has contended it is designed to do.

Under the plan, each grade level at elementary campuses would have one in-person learning classroom of up to 11 students. Students who are homeless would receive first priority in a lottery that distributes seats. Students who have special education needs and are learning English as a second language would receive second priority, and those who come from low-income families would get third priority in the lottery.

But the principals argued that this a problematic way to assign seats. Schools that have students who overwhelmingly come from low-income families receive the same number of in-person seats as wealthier schools — even though the need is not the same.

And, the letter argued, school principals should have had input in identifying their most vulnerable children. The lottery, for example, does not give priority to a student who may be homeless with special education needs over a child who may have only special education needs. The lottery also fails to differentiate between children with low special education needs and those with the highest need, the letter said.

“Principals and teachers know their students and know who is the most in need,” read the letter, which was signed by Richard Jackson, the head of the Council of School Officers, on behalf of principals. “They have had no voice, no input, and no time to recommend which students are more vulnerable and more in need.”

Ellen Dodsworth, a librarian at Eastern High in Northeast Washington, said she was informed she would need to report part time to a CARE classroom. She said she still commutes to Eastern three days a week, checking inventory and ordering books. She has a weekly advisory group with students and organizes regular virtual author visits. She also plans lessons on how to conduct research, applies for grants for the school and frequently helps students with college scholarship essays.

Dodsworth said she is willing to go to a CARE classroom but wishes that the school system would have tapped her expertise. She said it would make sense if she were teaching a literacy course or helping support the elementary school’s principal instead of supervising children.

“I am willing to help, but not to the detriment of my main job,” Dodsworth said. “The impact of pulling all these people is huge.” 


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