At about 10:30 Monday morning, Antonio Malik walks up to his mother.
“Have you ever heard of ‘King Henry Doesn’t Usually Drink Chocolate Milk?’” he asked.
It’s a mnemonic device Malik, 10, had just learned to help him remember metric system measurements — kilo, hecto, deca, base unit, deci, centi, mili. He’s a student at Langley Elementary School in Eckington. His mother, Annie Wright, is the Langley Parent Teacher Organization president.
Wright has frequent conversations with parents and school administrators about if and how Langley Elementary would reopen. Langley is a Title 1 school. It was one of several facilities to undergo HVAC renovations, not to mention an ongoing bathroom renovation project. Wright doesn’t point out those projects to criticize Langley Elementary administration. She said they are working hard to eventually open classrooms.
But it’s still unclear when Langley students, along with other D.C. students, will return to their classrooms. After announcing that 7,000 of D.C.’s roughly 30,000 elementary school students would return to classes on Nov. 9, the District was forced to keep classrooms closed after members of the Washington Teachers’ Union organized a sick-in.
According to reporting from the Washington Post, enough teachers called in sick Nov. 2 to necessitate the cancellation of online classes. The District abandoned plans to reopen some schools the same day.
DCPS will not open elementary schools on November 9 as planned. We have heard feedback from many in our community about #ReopenStrong plans, and we will use this moment to adjust our timeline and staffing plans for reopening. Read more: https://t.co/qW2kdKbROu
— Chancellor Ferebee (@DCPSChancellor) November 2, 2020
Washington Teachers’ Union Spokesman Joe Weedon said his organization wants to see more transparent data on building repairs and student interest in in-person classes in addition to more earnest engagement with parents and teachers before schools reopen their doors.
“There has been a lack of data,” Weedon said. “There is a lot of frustration on both sides but especially from the teachers at this point.”
Thirty five CARES classes opened on Nov. 18. CARES classrooms allow students to continue virtual classes onsite and under the supervision of school staff. Wright said she understands the importance of the CARES classrooms. She is able to work from home and her sister often comes over to help Malik with technical issues. Wright said she knows not everyone’s situation is like hers. But Langley hasn’t opened a CARES class, yet.
“Langley still needs work,” Wright said. She was among the parents able to tour the building’s recent projects. “I feel like the administration is working to at least prepare for CARES classes.”
Malik is somewhat aware of the tensions and hurdles associated with reopening classrooms. His mother is the PTO president, after all, so he hears the discussions about facility upgrades and teacher safety.
But on a daily basis, he just busies himself with the business of learning, like trying to remember what “King Henry Doesn’t Usually Drink Chocolate Milk” stands for.
I wanted to talk to Malik because after covering the possibility of a limited reopening at Langley in late October, I realized I hadn’t asked any Langley students about how they would feel going back to school.
Malik is not representative of all students. He’s just one fifth grader who wakes up, eats the breakfast his mom makes for him, usually breakfast sausage and muffins. He might watch a couple videos on YouTube and then logs onto his Microsoft Teams account at 8:45 a.m. for class.
His mother is able to work from home and his aunt is able to come over frequently and help with virtual learning. Malik said he knows not all students are in the same situation he is. Some have parents who work a lot, he said or at higher risk. It’s why, he said, he knew he wouldn’t be going back to school even before the District abandoned the plan.
But, even then, he didn’t mind the prospect of learning from his room for the rest of the school year if necessary. He still doesn’t mind that possibility.
“It feels safe,” he said. “It feels awesome, because you get to stay in your pajamas all day and be like ‘This is me. You got me.’”
Malik wasn’t always this comfortable with online learning. When schools first closed in March, he struggled to adjust.
“I feel like with my son, it (was) a lot of hand holding with him being at home,” Wright said in an earlier interview. “In the beginning I always plead the case that if you were in school, I would not be here holding your hand.”
But he hit his stride. Now, he said, he feels independent in his learn-from-home environment.
“I do feel more mature,” Malik said. “I have to stay here. I have no supervision. I have to make sure I have tunnel vision.”
That’s not to say that Malik doesn’t miss his friends. He misses recess and lunch hours – times that used to be social, but now he spends alone. At Langley, he said he and his friends made a Ghost Keepers group based on a mystery book they all liked called The Ghostkeepers Journal and Field Guide.
He also said he gets stressed sometimes. The long hours staring at a screen are hard for him, but when he does get stressed, he said he draws. He’s gotten better at drawing faces since the pandemic started. Noses used to be hard for him, but he’s starting to get the hang of drawing them.
I would love for him to go back, but I really don’t think that he is going to make it back in that building anymore.
In the weeks since D.C. Public Schools abandoned its plan to return some students to school, Wright is considering what the second half of the school year will look like for her son. She said she thinks Malik will finish out the school year learning from home, which is emotional to consider. Malik is a fifth grader, meaning this is his last year at Langley. Usually there is a graduation ceremony, but that, like so many other milestones, may be virtual this year.
“I think Antonio’s last day at Langley was March 15, 2020,” Wright said. “I would love for him to go back, but I really don’t think that he is going to make it back in that building anymore.”
It’s a reality many D.C. parents are considering as another round of end-of-school milestones inch nearer. DCPS is floating another plan to reopen during the January 2021 semester, but Weedon said there still needs to be more meaningful parent and teacher engagement before the Washington Teachers’ Union will sign off on any in-person learning plan.
“Whether it’s continuing to roll out the plan [DCPS] had previously developed is unclear,” Weedon said. “They are trying to engage a new school based committee … but there are no details in what they are looking for.”
There is still no knowing how and if a new plan to reopen schools will manifest. When asked how he feels about the possibility of finishing the school year virtually, or even beginning the next one from home, Malik was direct.
“Shoot, I wouldn’t mind,” he said. “I would keep in my real comfy clothes.”