Access to virtual learning expands with new legislation

Gil Leifman

The DC Council passed new legislation expanding virtual learning on October 5, in conflict with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s stance that all DCPS students should attend in-person school. 

Before the legislation, access to virtual learning required very specific exemptions, such as a doctor’s note about immunocompromising disease. This made it difficult for students who felt unsafe or uncomfortable in-person to learn virtually. With the new legislation, 350 more spots opened up for students to learn in the virtual academy. 

Although the eligibility to get a vaccine provides comfort for the Wilson community, Interim Principal Gregory Bargeman said if students aren’t comfortable coming to school and they have reasons why, then he supports their choice and the legislation. 

Bowser expressed her dislike of the bill in a letter addressed to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who spearheaded the legislation. She sees the bill as almost forcing virtual learning onto students, which would go against all her efforts to get students back in the building. 

In contrast, Mendelson does not see the new legislation as a barrier to returning in person. “This is not virtual on-demand,” Mendelson said at the hearing. “It is an adjustment to the restrictions on access to virtual learning.” 

Another of Bowser’s concerns with the new legislation is the possibility of increased truancy. Part of this bill is relaxing attendance policies at DCPS, in regards to illness. For example, if a student decides to stay home for health reasons, it won’t be counted as an absence. Social studies teacher Aaron Besser said he did not think the new legislation would create an increase in absences. 

“Students shouldn’t be penalized for trying to keep themselves and their classmates safe during a pandemic. Truancy is a legitimate concern, but as long as students are asked to provide evidence of testing or a doctor’s note I don’t see how this would increase truancy,” English teacher Sarah Schrag added.

In the hearing, Council Member Robert White brought up a troubling story about a DCPS student who lives with her mother and grandmother, who both suffer from serious illnesses. Without the legislation, the student is not eligible for virtual learning because she is not immunocompromised. However, she goes home every day to a household with immunocompromised people. 

When asked how she would feel in a similar situation, Freshman Makenzie Battle said, “I would feel very uncomfortable. I think it would definitely affect the way I am learning, and the way I am motivated to learn. I wouldn’t be able to perform my best.” Battle also said she supported the legislation, noting that not all students wear their masks correctly or follow COVID-19 protocols. Being involved with these circumstances every day, she noted that someone could feel very uncomfortable in such a big, crowded school. 

From a teacher’s point of view, history teacher Aaron Besser said, “Physical health and safety is just as important. I want to be as accommodating as I can if a student ever expresses concern, figuring out if there’s anything I can do to my classroom to make them feel safer, or figure out a more secluded space where they can still work asynchronously.”

With regard to the technological aspect of expanding virtual learning, DCPS is well-equipped, according to Instructional Coach David Thompson. “We have enough devices in this building to accommodate every single student with a device. We’re better equipped now than we were before.” Of the 3,000 devices Wilson has, 1,8000 devices are checked out to students and teachers.

 He also noted that a lot of the computers have Wi-Fi, so students won’t have issues with connectivity. Teachers are having students submit and complete work online, and virtual tools are becoming increasingly popular in classes. 

Because of Bowser’s opposition and her refusal to sign the bill, it became emergency legislation. Bowser also refused to fund the efforts, which may have contributed to the limited number of 350 spots for the virtual academy. 

Mendelson expressed his frustration with Bowser’s refusal to cooperate saying, “We cannot go further because the executive insists that anything more would have a fiscal cost, which is not funded. They are not willing to fund it.” •