D.C. public school community shares concerns about problems with the virtual learning environment (UPDATED)

By: Kelsey Carolan

David Grosso, Chairperson of the Education Committee, addresses concerns of parents, educators and students about ongoing distance learning during the pandemic.

D.C. public and charter school students began their school years like never before — at home. With students frustrated by technological challenges and staring at their screens all day, students, parents and educators said that changes to online learning are needed if it continues indefinitely.

On Friday, the D.C. City Council held a virtual Joint Public Oversight meeting that lasted over six hours to address the issue of distance learning, listening to students, teachers and parents air their concerns about the current virtual learning environment. 

David Grosso, Chairperson of the Education Committee, said he hoped that the meeting would bring more clarity about the challenges of online classes, general expectations of learning and what the reopening of schools would look like. When Mayor Bowser announced in July that the fall semester would begin online, she said students should expect to remain home until at least Nov. 6. 

“I recognize there’s a sense of uncertainty,” Grosso said. “That is understandable. But the mayor, DCPS and the charter schools, it should be clear that the science is leading their decision making and they should be transparent about all the data.”

While most students and teachers told council members that they believed it was imperative that classes remain virtual until there is at least a vaccine, they also said there should be changes made, specifically addressing issues with technology and how much work teachers assign to students.

Mandating that teachers use Microsoft Teams — an online video conferencing platform — to conduct their classes, students said they are often confused and frustrated with the software after using Zoom — another video conferencing platform — in the spring.

“Microsoft teams is not kid-friendly. It often kicks us out of class or freezes,” Natalie Rose Leistikow, a student at Cleveland Elementary School in Ward 1, said. “I can’t see my teachers when they’re presenting their lessons. My teachers can’t see me when I raise my hand in class when they are sharing their screen and I can’t ask my teachers questions privately in the chat. When we used Zoom, we didn’t have these issues and it worked so much better for our learning experience.”

Asking for flexibility on what software teachers can decide to use, Scott Goldstein, the executive director of EmpowerEd — a nonprofit that aims to elevate the voices of diverse D.C. teachers — said that many teachers are complaining that Teams is not working for them. 

Parents said they also struggled with learning a new online application while juggling multiple kids learning online at the same time. Alisoun Meehan, a DCPS parent, said her daughter needs extra support with reading and writing and learning through Teams and other new online applications has been difficult to navigate for students with disabilities.

“They [students and parents] were simply not included in this operation,” Meehan said. “Definitely without my assistance, my daughter could not have done this.”

Because students are required to attend all their classes through video conferences for eight hours each day, some said they can’t focus on homework and are constantly stressed.

Angel Garcia, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Ward 3, said virtual learning has been difficult for him because he gets migraines after not taking many breaks from the computer. He said he is unable to take breaks after school because of how much homework teachers assign now.

“If every teacher is assigning us homework that takes us an hour or two to complete, then we end up having to do six to eight hours and not a lot of us can finish the homework in that time,” Garcia said.

Another student at Wilson, Yeshe Mulegeta, said on top of an unprecedented amount of homework, she struggles with submitting assignments to teachers who do not have the same software that she does.

After hearing students’ and parents’ concerns, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen said he was frustrated by the lack of urgency school officials have shown. He said it is not enough to just say that glitches will be fixed in the future when classes may be online for an indefinite amount of time.

“DCPS didn’t tell families what platforms should be supported and what devices they should get until a couple of weeks ago so everything that everyone purchased is incompatible with the programs and software,” Allen said. “I just don’t hear the urgency.”

According to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, devices were ready to be distributed prior to the beginning of the school year. He said students in preschool and pre-kindergarten programs were the only ones to receive iPads after the first few weeks of school because the decision to provide them with virtual education was made later. 

Ferebee said he recognizes that younger students may have more trouble navigating technological challenges and the online setting as a whole. He said looking toward reopening schools, younger students will be prioritized, fearing that some more will unenroll — with enrollment already low — or be unprepared for future grades.

“We are prioritizing our elementary school buildings to ensure that our 80 elementary school buildings are prioritized for the conditions for in-person learning and that includes our assumptions around what’s possible for pre-k thee and pre-k four,” Ferebee said.

Just last week, Mayor Bowser announced that some schools are reopening their buildings to provide additional in-person support, such as tutoring and technical education, to students who they identify as needing it. Ferebee said this opportunity is voluntary for both teachers and students and health and safety protocols will be in place. 

Paul Kihn, Deputy Mayor for Education, said that Mayor Bowser will be announcing more information and updates regarding how DCPS is operating this upcoming week. He said this will include what plans are currently being put in place for the possibility of reopening all schools.

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