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74 Interview — D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee Talks COVID-19 Recovery Plans, With an Eye Toward Returning to In-Person Instruction

By Taylor Swaak | June 7, 2020

Chancellor Lewis Ferebee (Getty Images)

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee is determined that district schools remain a stabilizing force for students as social unrest and a continuing global pandemic grip the capital and country.

“Our presence, purpose and commitment” to students “is a constant,” he told the school community last week while expressing his “hurt, confusion and anger” over the latest acts of police brutality that sparked nationwide protests for racial justice. District officials shared educational resources for educators and parents to talk about race with students that the district intends to build on moving forward.

DCPS, which serves some 51,000 students, ended its year early on May 29. While much of reopening remains in limbo, Ferebee says the hope is to get students back to full in-person instruction when the 2020-21 academic year starts on Aug. 31.

But he added that the decision would hinge on a host of factors.

“We’re still gathering input from our families,” he told The 74, adding that any plans would also have to align with health officials’ guidance. “We would have in-person instruction, or we’d have learning at home, or some combination of the two.”

And that’s just one part of the equation. As with many districts nationwide, DCPS is still determining the best way to “creatively assess” students as the new academic year starts to gauge the extent of their learning loss, Ferebee said. There is work to be done, too, to ensure internet access for all students, which will be especially critical if remote learning extends into next year. There will also be an overwhelming need to address educators’ and students’ mental health, as the pandemic has wreaked havoc on many families’ health and livelihoods.

The district in a way is uniquely positioned to meet these challenges: Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed FY 2021 budget allocated a 3 percent increase in per-pupil funding to D.C. public schools as other districts like New York City have weathered hundreds of millions in cuts. And Ferebee is quick to point out initiatives already in motion: DCPS, for example, intends to host a “summer bridge” program for three crucial academic grades in early August — “the plan is to do it in person,” he noted — and recently announced the launch of a first-of-its-kind mentorship program for graduating high schoolers.

“I feel confident that we are in a better place now” than when COVID-19 started, Ferebee said. “And we’ll continue to get better over the summer.”

Here’s Ferebee in his own words. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

This was a year nobody could have expected. What in your opinion was DCPS’s biggest success with remote learning, and its biggest struggle?

Our teachers really stepped up. They were creative, they were nimble, they were flexible, and I just can’t say enough about the way they took on the challenge of learning at home and did it pretty quickly with limited preparation. Our educators have really provided, I believe, some of the best learning-at-home experiences that I’ve seen and heard of around the country.

One of our challenges has been how do we ensure that there is greater consistency across the schools for families. Because we jumped in pretty quickly, we saw teachers using different platforms, we saw different styles of scheduling for families, and we started to get feedback that certain things were working and certain things were not working. And we decided to launch a survey to better understand [this], and we took corrective action. One of our responses was our Parent University, which has gotten tremendous participation, and we just started offering sessions on topics that we were hearing from families: how to save good routines, how to address mental health, how to log in to a particular platform. I feel confident that we are in a better place now, and we’ll continue to get better over the summer.

It’s also important for you to know that we’re spending two weeks in June for what we’re calling Reopen Strong, which is a virtual series of professional development focused on learning and leading in a hybrid approach, because we anticipate we will have some element of learning-at-home for the foreseeable future. [It will also focus on] self-care for the adults but also intentional supports for students as well.

If full in-person instruction isn’t possible, is there a strategy on which schools would reopen first? Which students would be getting back to that in-person learning first?

For us, the way we thought about it is we want to ramp up to in-person instructions. We are hoping to serve approximately 11,500 students [for the summer bridge program]; these would be students in grades 3, 6 and 9. We selected these grades because we believe that these are transitional years where students need additional support. That is, the transition from grade 2 to 3, where you typically start to experience departmentalization; a lot of the sixth-graders would be transitioning in most cases from the elementary school to the middle school; and then our arriving ninth-graders [into high school]. So many students will be transitioning to new environments with new peers, adults that they may not have experiences with, so we believe that there’s time needed to build strong relationships for those students to be successful for the 2020-21 school year.

I hope it can be in-person; that’s what we’re planning for. And if it can’t be in-person based on the health conditions and guidance from D.C. Health and any other regulations or information we receive from CDC, if we need to, we can do it virtually. But the plan is to do it in person.

But when all students start the year, will there be a priority for getting certain students — for example, at-risk youth like foster and homeless youth — into the schools first? 

So with summer bridge, I really see that as the start of our school year. It’s the first step of introduction to educators and instruction for the 2020-21 school year. And in terms of what would happen on Aug. 31, with all of 50,000-plus students in the district, I don’t want to speculate on that at this point because we’re still gathering input from our families. We would have in-person instruction or we’d have learning at home or some combination of the two.

I know the district is considering giving students no-stakes diagnostic exams at the beginning of the academic year to gauge learning loss. But then what?

For us, I want to be really clear that with our supports, what we’re really thinking about as we close out this school year is our seniors. We know that for the Class of 2020, their journey obviously looks very different, and we’re really proud to launch the DCPS Persists initiative, which is a first-of-its-kind for a traditional public school system alumni support structure that’s about coaching support for students. It would be available to the Class of 2020 and beyond, made possible by a generous donation from the Clark Foundation. We’re going to provide these supports to them beyond graduation and help them focus on their first two years of college. So that’s one group.

We also know that summer learning is critical as well, so we are launching a virtual [K-8] summer school, which will begin on June 22, and that will include literacy supports for our youngest learners. We’re also providing supports for our secondary students — an ability for students to get enrichment courses and the ability for students to take [credit recovery] courses towards graduation.

And then embedded in that will be some assessment of learning. We haven’t decided yet what tools we’ll use. But having the ability to administer formative assessments throughout the year to monitor student mastery is key to informing our intervention and our acceleration efforts. And so we will creatively assess where students are in the summer, and then we will also do that throughout the school year to identify any gaps in learning. And we are planning to build in additional learning time throughout the school year next year, and that could be additional learning time throughout the day, additional school days, or it could be Saturday Academy, before school, after school.

Even with device distribution, I’m still hearing that Wi-Fi and internet access is a continuing barrier for some students. Especially if remote learning is a part of next school year, how is DCPS going to fix that connectivity issue?

That’s a question a lot of districts are thinking about: How do we provide equitable access? What we have been doing is providing students with Mi-Fi hotspots, which is a device that students can utilize in their home. Now, that’s a device that students have to come to the school to pick up. If there’s a way that we can provide that experience to students without them having to come get a device, that would obviously be ideal. But as you know, the ability to do that is extremely complicated, and many are working towards a solution that would address that. Immediately, we did purchase a number of hotspots that we were able to distribute; we distributed about 4,000 to families who needed them, and we’ve committed to providing that service throughout the summer so students can have access. If we need to distribute more hotspots, we’ll do that, but if we’re able to utilize some other solutions, we’ll be happy to do that as well.

Families have had access to some low-cost options for some of the providers here in the city. And I’m pleased to see that they’ve extended that service for the foreseeable future and hope that will occur for the next school year should we need it.

Would making the internet a public utility that the district would pay for — as school districts like Cleveland are considering — be an option for DCPS? Is it legally possible?

Good question. I don’t know what that would mean for D.C. I do know that we are in a very fortunate position with our budget thanks to a commitment from Mayor Bowser. D.C. Public Schools specifically is receiving about $77 million more in our budget for the 2020-21 school year, which is unprecedented given the current financial crisis associated with COVID. It does give us the ability to provide more devices; we have in that budget an enhancement to continue our Empowered Learners Initiative, which is our strategy to get to 1-1 [student-to-device ratio]. So it’s exciting to know that from a device perspective we still have the resources to continue that effort, and we’ll continue to work on the solutions for Wi-Fi.

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You’ve said previously that mental health is going to be an immediate focus next school year. What does that “focus” look like in practice? 

First we start with our adults. Before we get into what does success for hybrid learning look like — what are best practices for engagement and attendance in a virtual environment — we’re actually going to pivot to our educators and adults: How are you managing the stay-at-home requirements right now? How are you managing and juggling your family responsibilities and also being a classroom teacher? What structures can we support you with to be successful with managing all of the things that are happening around you? And then acknowledging and providing strategies for stress management.

Then we will pivot to developing strong relationships and trust with students — what language should we be using [in class]? And then we are going to provide a very intensive, trauma-responsive school model. We’ve already had a relationship with Turnaround for Children, and we’ve partnered with them to go even deeper with that work over the summer and well into the school year. And what that would mean from a practical standpoint for teaching and learning is we’re going to need to check on our students and their relationships before we start to open up books and our laptops.

What we are also striving to do is we are redesigning many of our Cornerstones [thematic lessons] so they can be used to help students at school build community and re-engage by using academics to understand and share their quarantine experiences. I think that’s just a really important piece of this for DCPS, because our Cornerstones have been very popular and very effective; students [participating in such lessons normally] are learning how to ride a bike, they’re running the bases at the Nationals Park.

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on May 28, when D.C. was still under stay-at-home orders. The district entered Phase 1 of reopening on May 29.)

I’ve heard anecdotally that there’s some concern about teacher retention and teachers retiring early. Is this happening, and if so, is there a plan in place to fill those positions? 

It’s fascinating to see that our recruitment is far ahead of where we’ve been historically. When we look at where we are this year with our hiring of educators and where we were last year, we’re actually ahead of the game. Our team during this time period, they’ve been able to engage more deeply with candidates [through virtual job fairs, for example] and establish some strong connections that has really built a deep pool for our principals to hire from. As of now, we’re hired for about 70 percent of our vacancies. We’ll be closing out the hiring process in a few weeks. The other side that’s also pretty fascinating is that we’ve seen extremely high interest in teachers wanting to be instructors for summer school. We’ve already had a number of teachers reach out and express interest in being a part of in-person instruction when we pick that up. Many teachers are actually eager to get back into their buildings.

I imagine a combination of remote and in-person days being a headache for working parents. When might students have some set schedule — and would there be any efforts like planning on siblings attending the same days? 

There’s definitely going to have to be coordination across the city as much as possible. We’ve already reached out to public transit — many of our students rely on public transportation to and from school. We’ve already engaged with many of the employer groups around the city, and, as you’ve indicated, we definitely want to consider siblings in this scenario and how we can make it easier for families. But the reality is, if we’re in a situation where there’s still significant concern around infections in the D.C. region, you can’t have all the students that you would normally have in the building. So then it becomes the question of who can come and when do they come and how often do they come. It’s something that we’re still seeking input on from families, and what will drive that [decision] ultimately is the demand for in-person instruction. I hear from many parents who are one side of the coin, and some families who are on the other side. It really depends a lot on that family’s situation, the parents’ working situation and the health conditions of the children in the home, along with the family.

One question, to end on graduation: Each school is hosting their own graduation ceremony. But how will you be getting involved in the festivities?

I was pleased to host a number of focus groups with seniors and high school students to hear from them directly: What do you want to see happen to celebrate your graduation? How can we still honor you? The seniors said they want me to record a video, which I want to do, and the seniors asked that I ensure that everyone has caps and gowns, which we are working on and I feel really good about. They asked for the ability to take photos, so we’re working on a schedule to provide students that opportunity. And they asked, when conditions permit, would we allow some type of in-person celebration. And I also responded that we would be happy to do that at a later date given students’ schedules.

I think the most important thing we can do, and this goes back to DCPS Persists, is continue to check on all seniors. It’s one thing to celebrate them with a cap and gown and graduation, but it’s another thing to be with them lockstep, day in and day out, over the summer and the next couple of years as they transition into higher ed or careers. I’m really excited about that.

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