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3 D.C. Charter Networks Seek Permission to Continue Offering All-Virtual Learning As Districts Move to Fully Reopen Schools

By Taylor Swaak | July 15, 2021

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Updated July 28

The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted Monday to approve KIPP DC’s virtual program proposal for grades K-12. It held off, however, on approving its request for creating an all-virtual campus in SY 2022-23, wanting to see how the virtual option works in the next school year. The two other charter networks that submitted all-virtual proposals did not get greenlighted: The board denied Howard University PCS’ request to continue its simulcasting model, determining the network had not shown its virtual program will result in improved performance or that there would be demand after the  pandemic ends. AppleTree withdrew its application.  

With school districts around the country increasingly adding virtual learning for the fall, three D.C. charter networks are seeking approval for their own all-virtual options, citing parent demand amid pandemic safety concerns.

KIPP DC, Howard University PCS and AppleTree Early Learning PCS are asking the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the city’s charter authorizer, to allow them to permanently offer all-virtual learning to a limited number of students.

“We know in-person is ideal,” said Andhra Lutz, KIPP DC’s managing director of secondary schools. But “we [also] have so much respect and so much love for our families. And our families have asked us for this.”

The plans range from launching all-new programming with virtual staff to sticking to last year’s learning models. Officials say there would be various safeguards — such as mentorship programs, attendance eligibility requirements and parent check-ins— to assure a high-quality experience rivaling in-person learning.

Projected capacity ranges from 20 students at AppleTree to nearly 300 students at KIPP DC, or about 4 percent of its student population. KIPP DC is also requesting approval to transition its virtual program into what would be the city’s second free, all-virtual public school in SY 2022-23.

A fourth school, Maya Angelou PCS, is requesting to permanently offer hybrid learning.

Without the PCSB’s approval, these schools could only offer all-virtual learning starting next year to students with documented medical conditions such as severe asthma, in line with guidance from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

A virtual hearing and vote are scheduled for Monday.

“Khamal won’t even go to the grocery store with me,” KIPP DC mom KyShawn Route-Crowder said of her seventh grade son, who’s stressed about returning to school and wants to stay virtual. His father had a heart attack in 2016, is immunocompromised and can’t get a COVID vaccine.

Route-Crowder added that her son, who attends KIPP DC’s KEY Academy, has flourished in virtual learning without classroom distractions. “You have to know what type of student you have. And I know my child specifically, and I know he can excel online right now.”

While most students nationwide are expected to head back to the classroom full-time this fall, virtual learning is sticking around. A recent Education Week survey of districts estimated 56 percent of schools will offer a remote learning option this fall, including in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Cleveland. Another report found nearly two-thirds of the country’s largest school systems will provide students an option to learn in stand-alone, remote academies.

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Currently, D.C. Public Schools — which serves about 53 percent of the city’s public school kids — is only allowing those with a “documented medical condition” to learn virtually next year. New York City, Newark and Chicago have made similar calls.

This wouldn’t be the first time the PCSB considered changes that ran counter to local guidance, experts noted. It broadly dismissed a 2019 analysis by the Deputy Mayor for Education cautioning against adding more charter high schools, for example. Any backlash to these plans, they surmised, would be less about regulations and more about concerns with program quality.

For most, distance learning last year was an inadequate substitute for in-person class. Slow Internet, digital literacy challenges, competing family obligations and distracting home environments upended many students’ progressespecially students of color from under-resourced neighborhoods. Numerous reports point to months of learning loss that districts now flush with recent federal stimulus aid are rushing to address.

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For some families in D.C., though, online school has been working. In a sample parent survey Howard University PCS conducted last month, about 94 percent said it was “extremely” or “very” important that they at least had the option of all-virtual schooling this fall.

Ward 4 mom Keisha, whose eighth grade son attends Howard University PCS, hopes her son goes back to in-person class — just not next year. She’s holding off on vaccinating him — the vaccine for kids is still new, she said — and developments like the Delta variant have her wary of him resuming his Metrobus commutes to school.

“Keeping him safe and healthy is my main priority,” she said. “I’m not rushing him back.”

A PCSB spokesperson said while the “goal is for schools to return to in-person learning as the primary mode of instruction,” the board is open to the conversation, wanting “to be responsive to the questions and concerns that we have heard from schools and students.”

KIPP DC: A new model in the making

Virtual programming this fall would look “vastly different” from last year, said Caitlin Maxwell, KIPP DC’s director of virtual learning programs.

On a typical day, kids would log on to Canvas in the morning, watch a seven-to 10-minute video for each of their class subjects and complete class work testing comprehension of the material.

KIPP DC’s “learning coordinators,” who are certified teachers, would then take about two hours to review students’ submissions, crafting their lesson plan for small group instruction that afternoon based on the concepts students struggled with most that morning.

During that two-hour period, students would have a break to eat lunch and take an “enrichment” class — like a foreign language or cooking — via a partnership with OutSchool.

Spokesman Adam Rupe confirmed KIPP DC is poised to hire 20 to 25 all-virtual staff members using recent federal stimulus funding. If the all-virtual campus is approved, “we’d use our per-pupil dollars” to pay for the program long-term, he added.

So far, KIPP DC has identified 66 medically eligible students for this program. Broader polling of the school community informed the estimate that around 280 students in total may opt-in if able.

Not every student would be eligible to participate, though, Lutz clarified. A student would need to have had at least 90 percent daily attendance in remote learning last year. Staff would also review the student’s academic records and have a conversation with the parents “where we’re really upfront about what’s different [from last year],” she said.

If a family changed their mind after the school year began, KIPP DC would allow that student to return to in-person during one of its quarter breaks.

Lutz and Maxwell feel confident in students’ ability to succeed virtually; recently compiled data shows 76 percent of KIPP DC middle schoolers saw growth in math over the 2020-21 school year. (The 74 asked for that same data pre-pandemic, but comparable data wasn’t available). They confirmed virtual learners would take “the same assessments” as students learning in-person.

While these students wouldn’t be working alongside their peers, Maxwell said KIPP DC’s virtual student clubs and monthly outdoor field trips would provide opportunities to socialize.

“That creates a sense of belonging for kids, and that’s often what they look forward to the most,” Maxwell said.

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Howard University PCS: Sticking to what it knows

As of last week, there were about 18 Howard University PCS families with some 25 students interested in staying virtual, Principal Kathryn Procope said.

If approved, the school would stick to the model it’s used since late January: Simulcasting, where the teacher is physically in the classroom with some students and streaming the lesson live via Microsoft Teams for others tuning in virtually.

All classrooms are already equipped with “Owls” — 360° camera, mic and speaker devices — for an immersive virtual experience, Procope said. Students at home could use the platform’s raised hand function to ask their teacher a question in the middle of the lesson.

No new staff hires would be needed under this model, Procope said. If a student decided to come back in-person during the school year, they wouldn’t need to change teachers.

Procope acknowledged the network overall saw “some slight dips in math and reading” performance last year, “but they weren’t significant.” Virtual students’ academic growth, she added, would be monitored with fidelity: The network’s learning platform, Summit Learning, is full of practice assignments to gauge students’ mastery of the content.And online quizzes and tests would only be released at specific times when a teacher is available to monitor the students on camera.

The school’s existing mentoring program is another safeguard to ensure students would have what they need to succeed, Procope said. Every student has an established relationship with a mentor who checks in at least weekly.

“It gives us an opportunity to know, ‘Hey, Mary’s family is experiencing homelessness, they may need X,'” she explained. “It allows us several touch points.”

“If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic,” Procope said, “it’s that we’re going to adjust and shift the way we educate them to make sure we reach them.”

The virtual public hearing and vote will be on Monday starting at 6:30 p.m. Information on registering to attend will be posted on www.dcpcsb.org.

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