The Wash
John Tyler Elementary School in Capitol Hill will reopen for limited programming on Wednesday, Oct. 14. It is one of 13 D.C. public schools slated to reopen throughout October. (Tobi Raji/ The Wash)

Neighborhood torn over ‘ludicrous,’ ‘confusing’ plan to reopen schools

Days before Tyler Elementary School welcomed students back for outdoor, limited programming, the district unveiled a widespread plan to send more than 20,000 elementary students back to campus, drawing the ire of many.

Parents and teachers say they were excited to return to Tyler Elementary School in Capitol Hill for small outdoor activities, including a garden club beginning Oct. 14 and recess beginning Oct. 15, until the district unveiled its own plan.

Tyler Elementary School is one of 13 D.C. public schools slated to welcome students back for small, outdoor group instruction this month.

When Principal Jasmine Brann announced her plan to reopen Tyler Elementary School for limited programming, parents, teachers, and staff told The Wash that they were happy and optimistic.

“I feel great about this plan,” Parent-Teacher Association President Elsa Falkenburger said. “I’m really proud of our principal.”

Jennifer Cetlin, a first-grade dual-language teacher at Tyler Elementary School, agreed.

“I believe that what Principal Brann is doing is safe, it is well thought out, and it is a small step that would ensure that students have some social-emotional time with each other outside of extracurricular activities,” Cetlin said. “However, the plan that DCPS, the chancellor and the mayor have put out has a lot of surprises to teachers that do not feel well thought out or well-intentioned or safe.”

Broader D.C. plan to reopen all schools remains controversial

Parents say that although they love Tyler Elementary School and are excited to return, they’re horrified with Washington’s decision to reopen all public elementary schools on Nov. 9.

When Term 2 begins next month, up to 21,000 students across all D.C. public elementary schools will return for limited in-person and virtual CARE instruction, five days a week. During last week’s coronavirus situation update, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee announced that seats would be prioritized for students receiving special education services, as well as those who are English language learners, at-risk, or experiencing homelessness.

Here is an example of a socially distanced model classroom in Northeast Washington. This is what classrooms will look like in November. (Courtesy of D.C. Public Schools)

In Capitol Hill, parents and teachers are worried about the undue burden this decision places on low-income students of color.

“Our children in our schools, many of whom are high poverty, people of color, are already at risk of COVID,” Danica Petroshius, a Capitol Hill parent, told The Wash.

According to data pulled from D.C. public schools’ website, 12 out of the 13 schools slated to reopen this month will welcome back a class that is mostly low-income students of color. As more and more D.C. public elementary schools reopen over the next two months, these students will be the first to return to school during a pandemic that disproportionately affects them.

Under this plan, Cetlin is unsure if D.C. public schools can ensure safe, equitable in-person instruction across all schools.

Leadership at D.C. public schools disagrees.

“DCPS believes that the best place to engage students in their education is in the classroom, and as we begin to offer in-person learning, a healthy environment is our top priority,” the organization said as part of the Chancellor’s message to the D.C. public schools community.

“The decision to take this significant step and plan to reopen our elementary schools is guided with safety and equitable access top of mind. It is our hope to allow more students, especially those furthest from opportunity, to return to school buildings and receive the critical supports that prepare them for lifelong success.”

Petroshius is skeptical about the plan to reopen, citing the recent surge in coronavirus cases at New York City public schools in Brooklyn and Queens.

“I have zero confidence that there is a situation where schools can open safely in a pandemic,” Petroshius said.

Joe Weedon, a communications consultant at the Washington Teachers’ Union, says that in order for students, teachers, and staff to safely return to school, teachers need detailed reports about building safety and readiness. To do this, Weedon says D.C. public schools must bring teachers and communities to the table—something that hasn’t happened.

If this doesn’t happen, Weedon said that schools would become the coronavirus pandemic epicenter in November.

“There will be isolated cases of exposure which will spread through school communities,” Weedon said. “Unfortunately, many individuals would suffer severe consequences of that, up to and including death.”

District schools will let parents know if their child has been selected for in-person instruction next week.

‘It’s always a great day to love and learn’

Students at Tyler Elementary School will receive outdoor, limited programming throughout October. However, when the district opens the floodgates on Nov. 9, things are going to change over at Tyler Elementary School.

As teachers leave to teach in-person instruction, virtual classrooms will get larger and larger. Students may not be with the same teacher they began the year with and the dual-language program could become understaffed.

Despite this, Brann says she feels hopeful about her school’s plan to return to in-person instruction on Nov. 9.

“I miss our students, their smiles,” Brann said. “I feel hopeful about what lies ahead and meeting the needs of all of our students.”

Parents and teachers are excited to return to Tyler Elementary School in October but are nervous about returning for in-person instruction in November. (Tobi Raji/ The Wash)
Tobi Raji

Tobi Raji

Tobi Raji is a graduate journalism student interested in international politics and the welfare of immigrants, migrants and refugees. She covers Capitol Hill for The Wash and is a part of The Washington Post practicum team.

She is also an AmeriCorps and Rutgers University alumna.

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