Everyone thinks D.C. is lousy with politicians and lobbyists. But it's also chock-full of crime fiction writers.
It’s a first day of school unlike any other. Across the region, students are heading back into their virtual classrooms. So, what should we expect from the new academic year?
In D.C., there’s been a scramble to ensure every student has internet and computer access. And local school leaders are bracing for greater restrictions on who can pick up free meals at schools, and where those meals will be available.
So, how are students and their families adapting to the new normal? And what supports do they still need?
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo for Kids with Musician and Storyteller Amadou Kouyate. We'll also have a special remembrance of Chadwick Boseman. But first it's the first day of school for many local students and the beginning of an academic year unlike any other. So how are teachers, students and their families adapting to an all virtual learning environment? And what supports do they still need? Joining us to discussion education during a pandemic is Perry Stein, Washington Post's Reporter covers education in D.C. Perry Stein, thank you for joining us.
PERRY STEINThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIPerry Stein, what are the biggest issues you're seeing unfold as this school years begins?
STEINRight now we know that the biggest challenge D.C. is going to have is can they get kids the necessary technology that they need to log on and participate in distance learning and will kids and families know how to properly use this technology once they get it. And so those are the basic tools that kids need to be able to participate and that doesn't even include -- you know, that doesn't even get into the childcare issues and any other issues that students may have. But the basics in day one is do kids have the proper tech and are they able to log on?
NNAMDIWell, do they? Does every D.C. public school student have access to a laptop and the internet?
STEINThe chancellor has said that every child in need will get one. I know that DCPS, I've seen it myself, has been distributing technology and hotspots these last few weeks and days. But we know, I've seen from some schools that some technology distributions is still -- are delayed. So it's unclear how many don't have it. But I can confidently say that not every single child has it right now to log on the first day of school. But the chancellor has said that they will get technology to every child in need.
NNAMDII get the challenge is trying to make sure they can find out where every child in need is because how do you get every student in D.C. public schools on an equal technological footing?
STEINYeah. It's really complicated. It's not as easy as just saying, This kid needs tech. Here's a laptop. I mean, we know that during this pandemic some kids have lost touch with their schools. It's a very transient city. Kids move a lot. Kids who needed tech last year or who did not need tech last year may need it this year. And so the city is sending out surveys -- the school system is to try to see who needs what. But we know that not every parent has replied to that survey. So it's an all hands deck -- all hands on deck approach is what I'm hearing. There's, you know, teachers, principals, everyone is trying to track down kids to make sure that they know that they need to log on for the first day of school, that today is the first day of school. And are trying to figure out what tolls they need so that they can do it. But we know some communities in this city have been harder to get in touch with than others.
NNAMDII was about to say, because much of DCPS's outreach it is my understanding is via text. So the digital divide, how might an all virtual school year make it even worse?
STEINI mean, this has -- a lot of people have been saying long before the pandemic hit that we have a tech divide in the city. We need to address it. However, obviously, this pandemic has made it -- the consequences of this tech divide painfully clear. And yes, so the basics, people need it to be able to log on. But, yes, we know that there is huge disparities as to who has what. A lot of families in the spring, they did distance learning on their phone. They used their phones as hotspots. And a lot of that worked during a normal school year. Most of the kids did homework in libraries or in their classrooms or in afterschool programs. And they were able to succeed in school without having all the tech that they need for distance learning.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Maurice Cook Founder and Executive Director of Serve Your City that's a non-profit, which has delivered backpacks with hotspots and laptops to families for the 2020 school year. Maurice Cook, thank you for joining us.
MAURICE COOKThank you for having me on, Kojo. It's great to be with you today.
NNAMDIYour organization, Maurice, Serve Your City has made an effort to bridge this divide that we were just talking about. Tell us first about Serve Your City and the role it plays in the community.
COOKWell, you know, before the pandemic and the mayor's stay at home order here in D.C. we served, you know, generally Black and brown youth providing them access to activities and programs and resources that they generally couldn't afford. And our tagline is Black and Brown Faces Invading all White Spaces. So we had programs that typically historically have been hard for Black and brown youth to participate in.
COOKWe have the only majority Black rowing crew here in D.C. -- youth rowing crew in D.C. And we do tennis and yoga and swim, snorkel, scuba diving instruction. All the things that folks can do and love outside that we can no longer do during the stay at home order. So we had to quickly shift and we became the infrastructure for the Ward 6 mutual aid network, a part of the D.C. mutual aid network. And since March we've delivered, you know, thousands of pounds of food and PPE.
COOKDelivered over, you know, 20,000 masks. And we're down in the tent encampments. We're helping students in the shelter services. We're doing a lot of different things. And earlier on in the spring we knew the challenges that our families had regarding the new remote learning, virtual learning during the spring. And so we started a campaign and we built a refurbishing team and we asked the community through our networks to give us their old laptops or old tablets. And then we knew we had to expand that. And so we started a campaign called the D.C. back to school bash where we're putting these backpacks together with, you know, laptops and tablets, hotspots and internet service along with art supplies and fun activities and games and books. And thus far, we've been able to give out approximately 86 backpacks. We are prepared to give out another 120 backpacks.
COOKAnd we've received requests for over 800 backpacks. And so that just speaks to the need that's out there in the community to be able to have the basic tools, the basic human right of having access to this technology that they need to for our families, for our youth to further their education. And in D.C., you know, one in four Black and Latinx students have access to the internet. From a study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, it's found that D.C. is the second worst in the country when it comes to the racial gap between Black and Latinx students and their white counterparts where it says only five percent of white students are doing without the internet at home.
COOKAnd so we have a lot to do. And we're afraid that black and brown students will be penalized for their attendance because D.C. passed I think it's supposedly still tracking attendance. This attendance is based upon whether students have the ability to log in. And so the fact that the school system doesn't have -- has not provided -- in the last 20 years has not provided this access. And now that they're rushing to try to put a band-aid on a cancer, you know, which is this so called digital divide, but which is really just structural racism and classes. And it's now time for us to take this seriously.
NNAMDIHere is Chandler in Washington D.C. Chandler, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHANDLERThank you, Kojo. I know Maurice and the great work he's doing. Hey, Maurice, how are you?
COOKHow are you doing, Chandler?
CHANDLERGood. You know, we know the work the Mutual Aid and Serve Your City is doing. And they've stepped up in an amazing way. And you can see in all the Facebook that all the backpacks that they're putting through. And it's really unfortunate that they even had to do that. And we've wasted five months. And, you know, there are ways to be able to figure this out. In fact, this morning I had a text from a constituent, who said their class was not able to access the school and they were getting an error message. And in fact, they called the help desk and it went straight to voicemail. And so kids in elementary school already are not able to get into class. And that's really really disappointing, because we had a chance to do that.
NNAMDIChandler, are you an elected official?
CHANDLERI'm an AC commissioner on Capitol Hill.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Maurice, what have you heard from families in Ward 6? What has the experience of virtual school been like for them? A lot of stories like what Chandler just told?
COOKAbsolutely. This morning I've heard about three horror stories where the platform that the school system is using canvassed folks, who had been trying to prepare to make sure they had the specs to be able to manage and hold the platform it's not working. It's logging folks out. Folks are not sure whether or not that they will be able to receive the tech support that they're going to need to be able to get their kids online today.
COOKA couple of parents have already gotten in touch with me that this is going to be an issue. And it's not just about getting, you know, folks the devices, which is a challenge because no one really knows what the number is. I mean, according to DCPS, you know, it's about 20,000 students. But we don't know what truly that number is right now. And so we are really going to have to carry the load as a community as the people given that our city government -- you know, you think about 20 years ago.
COOKThat's when most people, working people, a lot of working people have been able to purchase a laptop and provide internet in their homes. And so you know what D.C. has done in the last 20 years. The city has changed. And you know what the priorities of our city government is and that's to build unaffordable housing. And so I always say, we have to do this on our own and really not depend upon the school system working under the city government to fix this problem, because if it was a priority we wouldn't be having these issues right now this morning.
NNAMDIPerry Stein, what are you hearing from students in all this? How are they feeling as the school year begins?
STEINI was outside of a school this morning and I spoke to one 10 year old who I think summed up what I'm hearing from a lot of kids. And he just said, "This is really weird." You know, he said, "I don't know what to expect. I don't know how my teachers are going to fill their days." But he was also very excited for the first day of school. He said he was excited to get started.
STEINYou know, I was outside the school just to try to get a sense of what was going on. I saw a lot of families coming in, at least a dozen in the hour or so I was there, getting tech support. They had already picked up their laptops, but either their log in wasn't working or they didn't have a hotspot or something. Luckily at this school, you know, they told me that -- all the parents that came out said that their tech support was, you know, the school fixed it all. So it was a weird scene. You had kids -- you had families rushing to school to get everything fixed only to rush back home to log on to distance learning from their own homes. But I think a lot of kids, they want to go back to school. But they're rolling with it from the ones that I've spoken with.
NNAMDIWe're going to be taking a short break. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. What challenges are your kids facing as the new school year begins? How are you feeling as school begins again online? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about schools reopening virtually in Washington D.C. today with Maurice Cook, Founder and Executive Director of Serve Your City. That's a non-profit, which has delivered backpacks with hotspots and laptops to families for the 2020 school year. And Perry Stein is a Washington Post Reporter covering education in D.C. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you a teacher at a D.C. public school? How is the first day of school going for you? Give us a call 800-433-8850. Perry, what in fact about teachers? Do you get a sense that they're feeling adequately prepared to teach fully online?
STEINYeah. A lot of teachers, what I've heard they are dealing with do their kids have the technology. They're wondering who's going to be able to show up on this first day of school. I talked to, for instance, one kindergarten teacher. She said she feels pretty comfortable with all the technology and all that. But she also wonders how effective it is going to be to teach certain things that you teach kindergarteners, which are things like routine. How do you line up in a classroom? This is your class schedule. This is how you're supposed to act in school and be in school, and so those types of routine things, which are very important in kindergarten.
STEINShe was wondering, you know, how do you teach that virtually. There's other questions that I've heard from teachers. I mean, we know that in DCPS across the city enrollment is low. I think every day it picks up. But this is because parents don't know -- may not know that they have to go through the typical reenrollment process because this year is virtually.
STEINSo some teachers are a little confused or unsure who is on their roster. Their roster seems small in some of the teachers that I've spoken to. So they're wondering, you know, how it will look different from day one verse week two. And this sometimes happens every single school year, where kids sign up late. But it's just a little more pronounced this year.
NNAMDIHere is Chad in Washington D.C. Chad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHADHi, thanks for taking my call. Hey, Kojo. So, yeah, I think I may have a little insight as a parent to two daughters, who were DCPS and now at Catholic school in downtown D.C. And I think they mentioned about a band-aid on a cancer. From my perspective as a physician and father watching my daughters, the real band-aid on the cancer is this assumption that the cyber school and distance learning at that age group is even capable of providing what a child needs for psychological and cognitive development.
CHADIt's an absolute failure and an absolute travesty that they can't figure out a way especially for underserved kids and populations where they're dependent upon physical activity and human interaction in school learning environment. So the school system very quickly needs to find a way to rotate these kids back into class. It's safely happening across the world right now. Kids are at much higher risk from a multitude of other things besides coronavirus.
CHADAnd if you look at the statistics on just influenza alone, you know, hundreds of kids die every year and we do not, you know, completely shut down the school and switch to distance learning. So I hope that your panel will, you know, consider the larger implications. I think the teachers that are saying that they're ready for this and that the kids are equipped are wrong. No one is doing well in this environment. It's an absolute failure. I think the verdict is out.
NNAMDIChad, is the Catholic school that your kids are going to open?
CHADIt's not open. It was shut down at the last minute. They were supposed to be on a hybrid learning, which originally we thought was a very good plan. At least the kids could rotate. They could adequately social distance. The teachers who did not have at-risk families at home could come in and teach in-person with a mask on. That system was overridden for a 100 percent at-home learning only. And I can tell you as someone who has resources at home, you know, watching our daughter trying to find room in the kitchen as they fight and struggle and can't hear each other, they lose their camera, they lose their microphone. Their teachers' grading systems is not --
NNAMDIBottom line is you feel, Chad, that they need to be back in school.
CHADAnd from a medical and cognitive perspective the long term detriments, the longer we wait, the worse it's going to get.
NNAMDIPerry Stein, to what extent have you been hearing that sentiment expressed?
STEINYeah. I have been hearing a lot of parents that they do want to go back to school. There is obviously -- the city back in the spring did surveys and there were a lot parents that said they were not ready to go back to school. But I've heard this particularly from special education parents, parents of younger kids, parents who feel that there's just no way distance learning is going to be effective for their kids. And they're wondering, can the city -- can the school system get small populations of kids back into classrooms?
STEINCan they get these children with special education needs or children who may not be able to do distance learning for whatever reason? And the school system the chancellor has said he wants to try to get kids back in as soon as they feel this health statistics -- the health data allows for it. And maybe they will get small groups of kids in first before schools fully reopen.
NNAMDIPerry, you're reported on the issue of food insecurity. What changes are coming to the free and reduced priced meals offered at local schools?
STEINYeah. So there were supposed to be changes. Actually the USDA made an announcement today. The USDA is the federal agency that runs the school lunch program. They have enacted a lot of flexibilities during this pandemic to ensure that kids can still get their meals free. And one of those is allowing kids to -- or their parents to pick up meals from any school whether they go there or not. There was fear that that would not be able to happen this year. Meaning that kids would have to pick up lunches from the school system that they attend. So if they attend DCPS they can pick up any lunch at any school within DCPS, but if they attend a charter school, they would have had to pick up lunch from that specific charter network even if it was far from their home.
STEINHowever, it looks like as of today, so after I wrote that article and after backlash from across the country, the USDA is extending those flexibilities. So the school meal program to my understanding should look much like it did in the spring and the summer.
NNAMDIMaurice Cook, what kind of aid is Serve Your City offering to those who are food insecure?
COOKSo we deliver -- we have a hotline, a Ward 6 hotline. And anyone within Ward 6 can email Ward 6 Mutual Aid, the number firstname.lastname@example.org and they can be placed on our hotline if they need support in Ward 6. We deliver meals every week. We have both nonperishable and perishable food for folks. We have partnered with restaurant chains like Maketto and others to deliver to Ward 6 senior buildings and we do community tablings on the weekends where we pass out a lot of food and lot of PPE masks, etcetera.
COOKBut, of course, with the issue with our D.C. back to school bash those computers, those backpacks are open to anyone in D.C. public schools or D.C. charter. Just for your information there have been schools that have made requests to us directly even expecting to receive some type of support from the school system. But these schools decided to ask us because they know that we'll deliver.
COOKAnd we've had large non-profits make huge requests for backpacks and supports. And that support is going throughout the city. But, yeah, we deliver food on a daily basis. We have been since the stay at home order. We were up and running before the mayor's hotline support service came -- you know, opened and available to the city public. But, you know, we're doing our best to make sure that everybody has the basics of what they need.
NNAMDIHere's Star in Washington D.C. Star, your turn.
STARThank you for taking my call. Two points in regard to what the last caller said.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left. But go ahead, please.
STAROkay. He didn't address the issue that for over two decades the lack of all students having access to computers. He left that issue totally out. But more importantly there's been recent research showing that even though children don't get infected, young children, at the same rate as adults they are actually the biggest carriers. And for the multitude of low income, very vulnerable families in the District having your children in schools it not only places the teachers at risk with contagion. But it definitely jeopardizes the health of the parents, the care taking families, who are already fighting the ramifications in terms of employment and health from the virus.
STARAnd so it's a very serious question to have students going back.
NNAMDIOkay. I'm afraid we're just about out of time. But thank you very much for sharing that with us. Quickly, Maurice, Beverly emails us, "I have a laptop that I'm not using. Who could I contact to donate it?"
COOKPlease email dcbacktoschoolbash.com. Email dcbacktoschoolbash.com if you're in need of a laptop or internet access. Maurice Cook, Perry Stein, thank you both for joining us. Coming up next it's Kojo for Kids with Musician and Storyteller Amadou Kouyate. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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