Students and families share experiences with distance learning in new report

Today, the DC Policy Center released its annual snapshot of DC’s education landscape and school experience, the State of DC Schools Report

Traditionally, this report has presented the plethora of available quantitative data on how DC schools are doing. Unfortunately, due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus, much of the data on things like student performance on annual assessments and school environment were unavailable for this year’s report. 

However, the DC Policy Center, through one-on-one interviews and focus groups, provides an insightful look at what our families, students, and teachers were experiencing during the unprecedented shift to distance learning that began in March 2020 and continued through the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.  

Here’s what we learned: 

Schools saw continued growth and improvement at the beginning of SY19-20.  

Before the pandemic, public schools were still on a steady path to improvement. Enrollment grew, albeit at a slower pace of one percent than in recent years. Our schools are now serving a higher proportion of English learners and students with disabilities, and we are encouraged by the decreasing number of students who are considered at-risk of academic failure.

Additionally, our students had more seasoned teachers at the front of their classrooms. The share of teachers who had one year or less of teaching experience shrank from the previous school year. This was true for both high-poverty and low-poverty schools. 

The pandemic and abrupt switch to distance learning created challenges for caregivers, educators, and students alike. 

It’s no surprise that caregivers were overwhelmed when they had to take on the responsibility of keeping their learners engaged and on track while managing their own work obligations. Older students felt distracted at home, lacked motivation, and worried about their futures. Younger students experienced a loss of months of learning in both reading and math and detrimental emotional well-being effects. Teachers had to adapt quickly to providing instruction virtually and struggled to maintain communication with students and families who were not digitally accessible.  

The school system successfully addressed some of these challenges to meet students needs, but work remains. 

The Office of the State Superintendent for Education adopted positive policy changes that created the flexibility schools needed shift their focus to providing distance learning. The Deputy Mayor for Education facilitated cross-sector school leader and interagency coordination of services through bimonthly virtual meetings. The District and philanthropic partners worked to close the digital divide by distributing devices and to ensure students did not go hungry while away from school buildings.  

However, plenty of work remains and distance learning has its limitations. 

As DC looks to SY21-22, there are several known challenges we must address. 

Our schools face clear challenges going forward as a result of disrupted school time from SY2019-2020. Reversing learning loss, providing for the social and emotional well-being of students, and engaging families and students in recovery planning to make sure their needs are met will be critical as schools begin to reopen. 

Education Forward DC, along with a coalition of schools, families, and community-based organizations, are pushing to ensure that planning begins now and that schools and communities have the resources and input they need to reopen safely, address learning loss, and get the District’s schools back on the path they were before the pandemic. Learn more about the campaign to create the Strongest Year Yet here. 

You can check out the State of DC Schools Report from the DC Policy Center, key highlights, as well as a video about the report, and the archived panel discussion on its release here.