Hybrid learning begins

Joanna Chait

About two hundred and thirty-five students began in-person learning, one day per week for a half-day, on February 2. Some Wilson staff members have concerns regarding the safety and equity of the plan. 

In the weeks leading up to Wilson’s reopening, Principal Kimberly Martin was highly skeptical Wilson would return in person on February 1, given the uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. However, DCPS is requiring schools to admit a minimum of 25 percent of their total students back into the building. 

After receiving responses from the Wilson community to a DCPS survey in December, Martin realized there is not one specific group that would benefit from in-person instruction. With limited time and constantly shifting guidelines, Martin decided to create a reopening plan that prioritizes safety. 

“The likelihood that we would meet all the students’ needs, get to our 25 percent, and only target a certain population of students, didn’t make sense,” Martin said. 

Martin is prioritizing student and teacher safety by aiming to decrease contact. “It was really important to limit the amount of student and teacher exposure. So, we have no choice but to start school, but we also have to start school in the safest way possible,” she said. 

Each department is assigned a day of the week for in-person learning so that teachers only have to come into the building once a week. They will see a maximum of two cohorts of ten students. Unless attending two classes on different days, students will only be in the building for half a day, one day per week, and will remain in their one cohort. 

Additionally, students and teachers are required to wear masks, temperature checks will be mandatory, and social distancing will be enforced. DCPS provided high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters for each Wilson classroom. 

The equity of this plan has been widely questioned. “The process of seat selection is not based on any data or defined methodology, which opens it up to inequity,” said a longtime member of the Wilson faculty. 

Special Education Academic Coordinator and social studies teacher Chisda Magid had similar concerns. “It’s that without providing any guidelines, or any impetus towards equity, people will choose the students they know,” he said 

In the original versions of the plan, grade-level teams were supposed to examine student data including term one and two grades, attendance, GPA, and if they were considered “at-risk.” However, that has not happened. Instead, teachers have been provided with a list of their term three students, their term one and two grades, and their GPA by Data Coordinator Joseph Bellino.  

“From me, they received a report of the names of their students in periods one and three, along with the students’ term one grades, term two progress report information, and the term two grades at the time the report was run,” Bellino said. 

Through a program called Elsie, teachers can access data they need to determine who they should invite back in-person. Originally created by Bellino in 1992, Elsie compiles information from Aspen such as current student grades, their schedule, and their weighted and unweighted GPA. However, a large caveat of the program is that it can only be used on DC Wi-Fi. This requires teachers to drive to a DCPS building to access the data. 

Furthermore, the process of acquiring academic data for a large group of students is very tedious because Elsie is a “one-stop-shop for data” a long-time Wilson teacher said.  Because the process is so tedious, general education teachers are not or rarely using Elsie, Magid explained. Although, Magid doesn’t think academic data, even if accessible, doesn’t have much value. “My main issue is that the plan is not academic, so academic data has limited use” Magid said. 

However, teachers can still obtain academic data without using Elsie. “We can still email [Mr. Bellino] and he responds very quickly,“ English Second Language (ESL) Department Chair and social studies teacher Jonathan Shea said. 

Science teacher Dani Moore did not have to select certain students to return. She invited all her students and less than 10 students volunteered. If she had to choose students, she would have used Elsie to make the decision. “I certainly would have gone to Elsie. I live in DC so I probably would have gone to the elementary school a couple of blocks away and you know camped outside to use their Wifi for a little bit,” Moore said. 

 “My main issue is that the plan is not academic, so academic data has limited use” Magid said. 

Some teachers are calling and or emailing families, explaining the in-person learning situation, and asking if they want their students to return. 

Still, “there is a large group of teachers who are actively not making the phone calls because they see them as beyond their [job] requirements and as being not beneficial” the same Wilson faculty member said adding that it is due to the lack of data. 

Additionally, the plan provides spots to ten students from every class, including ten seats for students in Advanced Placement (AP) and on-level courses. The amount of spots each class is given is not adjusted to the amount of at-risk students. This will likely make it harder for at-risk students to get a spot for in-person learning. However, Magid and others do not feel that the model itself is the largest cause of inequity. Rather, they think the lack of data being used to decide which students should get seats is the largest cause of inequity. Although Magid’s largest critique of the plan is that “it would worsen existing inequities within Wilson, based on ability and race, raising questions about who this plan benefits,” he said. 

Questions about the plan’s instructional advantage have been raised by many staff members. “I’m not confident that students are going to get a huge academic benefit from coming to school for half a day, a week,” Martin said. 

In a faculty meeting led by Assistant Principal Steven Miller on January 27, Wilson’s administration emphasized that teachers should “start with what you’re already doing, with what’s already working for you,” Moore said. Moore emphasized her plan to utilize asynchronous time to provide her students in the classroom with individualized support. 

While extra technology will not be provided by DCPS, all of the Promethean boards in Wilson classrooms will be fixed in time for the return date. 

Though all students may not benefit from instruction, there are numerous other advantages of returning to school in-person. 

“A benefit might be to just be in a room with humans that you have to work with all the time,” Martin said. She explained that returning in-person will allow students to have social interaction, which could benefit their overall mental health. 

Junior Natalie Sipress is volunteering to return in-person because she believes “it’s very hard to learn math if it’s not in person.” Although there are health risks with returning in person, “we looked at the statistics, and the transmission of the virus is very low in schools,” Sipress said. Moreover, she echoes Martin’s belief that seeing other teenagers will positively impact their well-being.  

Shea explained that for some students having access to a working internet connection, even for half of a day once per week, could be extremely helpful. 

Many teachers are thinking about using their sick leave to not return to Wilson until it is safe. Since teachers only teach one day in the building per-week, their sick leave will last for up to twelve weeks.

However, Moore will return to school in-person. “I feel that it was my responsibility, as a person who can step up to this additional risk, to do it,” she said. 

Though Wilson arranged to facilitate 126 cohorts, “it will be fewer than that because teachers are continuing to sign up for leave or requesting accommodations. As teachers get approved for leave, we remove them from the schedule and reduce the number of cohorts,” Martin said. 

The Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) pursued charges against the city for allegedly breaking the agreement between the two institutions, in an attempt to delay school re-opening for the once again over what it contends is inadequate safety. The union claims that DCPS has not accommodated their safety agreement and that DCPS needs to be more transparent about data on how many students are returning in-person. However, according to an email from Chancellor Ferebee, the arbitrators sided with DCPS after “finding no evidence of health or  violations in our schools.”

 In a partnership with Children’s Hospital, the DC government allotted 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine for DCPS in-person staff beginning January 25. Many of the Wilson staff members, including Moore and Shea, were able to secure vaccine appointments. 

After creating 12 iterations of her reopening plan and receiving feedback from a committee of teachers, the LSAT, and other staff over the past months, Principal Martin feels ready to welcome students into the building on February 1. 

“It’s impossible for us to imagine every single possible scenario and to have a plan for it. But I think we’re as prepared as we can be,” Martin said.