Nearly a year ago, schools across the country moved to online instruction. Now, School Without Walls has brought a limited number of students back into the building on a hybrid schedule, the latest chapter in the debate on compromise between safety and education.
The school has invited certain students back for term three, prioritizing freshmen, at-risk students, students with a 504 plan or an Individualized Educational Plan, and students who are failing a class. These students may come to school one to three days a week.
However, returning to the building does not mean returning to traditional in-person education. With up to 11 other students and a staff member – their pod – students attend online classes, like anyone still at home. On Wednesdays, the pods take part in teacher-led activities such as social support, presentations, and neighborhood walks. Walls administration cited some specific benefits, like freshmen becoming accustomed to the building and staff, as well as opportunities for increased social interaction.
The 60 students returning to the building have extremely limited contact with people outside of their pod. They sit distanced and masked around the room, and bathroom breaks occur on a strict rotation. They eat lunch in their pod's classroom, both a stark contrast to the independent lunch system that students previously enjoyed and an apparent violation of CDC guidelines, which recommend face-mask usage at all times indoors with people not in one's household.
“I do feel like the city is not prioritizing schools... If we truly want to prioritize students and learning, then we need to think about closing other things so we can open schools,” Mr. Webster, a Geometry and Algebra II teacher, said of current community viral spread. However, he continued, “I think that for students who are struggling... having people around them learning is a really nice, positive-peer-pressure [environment].”
Sophomore Lilly Shaw was not planning on going back to the building if she were invited, asking, “Why risk illness when I am doing well at home?”
Lilly has a 504 plan, a strategy for school support for students with conditions or barriers that would otherwise limit their learning. She said, “During distance learning, I have been able to receive all the accommodations on my 504 plan to a better extent than before.” It was easy for her to alleviate back pain by walking or lying down, which she may not have been allowed to do previously. Moreover, “accommodations such as extra time [on timed assignments and assessments] and eye breaks are much easier to execute during virtual learning.”
In DC, coronavirus vaccines have recently been made promised to all DCPS staff returning to work in-person. Walls administration noted that all 20 of the staff members scheduled to return, a mix of those who either volunteered or were ordered to return, were offered a vaccine, and those who accepted it will receive a second dose in a few weeks. This means, however, that they are currently working without full protection of the vaccine, which only develops a few weeks after the second dose.
Walls staff are part of the third group of people being vaccinated in the city. Some people 16 and older will become eligible if they are in a priority group due to co-morbidities, but those who are under the age of 16 will have to wait longer to be inoculated. Since trials so far have not included children or adolescents, the FDA has not approved any vaccine for those under 16 – nearly half the Walls student population.
On this, Mr. Webster stated, “I know the more people who are vaccinated, the safer [returning to the building] is. […] I would feel more comfortable coming back after being vaccinated, but as a student, I would understand if you weren’t as comfortable.”
When asked about safety precautions the school is taking, Mr. Webster stated, “Besides [opening ahead of widespread vaccinations in the city], I think [administration and DCPS are] doing the best they can to keep our building safe. I think some faculty members are concerned about the recent building inspection because there seems to be some kind of issue with the HVAC system. I don’t actually know the details of this, but I appreciate the transparency our administration has shown so far in publicizing the results of that inspection.” Since the virus is primarily spread through the air, any ventilation issues could prove serious.
Walls administration says it "advocated for the necessary improvements and updates and ensured all work-orders had been completed before opening the school to students.”
Freshman Alex Benach was invited to return to school and is planning on doing so. He explained that risk no longer outweighed reward: “There’s no one in my house who’s at a huge risk. And I also think that doing online [school] from my room has just gotten very difficult and I think I could benefit from being in the building.”
When asked how much he is learning now compared to in-person school, he said, “I think less... Especially because I’m coming from middle school and I’m switching to [Walls] completely virtually, it’s just a very hard transition. And it’s not been the best for absorbing information and getting used to the flow of things.”
There are many possibilities for the future of the reopening process: A surge in cases could close the school, students may begin to opt out of the plan, or teacher dissatisfaction could force a return to online school. If it's successful, though, more students could return for fourth advisory.