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Maintaining Trust During the Reopening of DC’s Public Schools

Amid the pandemic, both families and institutions have been scrambling to find their footing. We are witnessing confusion in real time as school systems work to get students back into the school building. We know that personal connections – social bonds between students and interactions between students and educators – are what makes school special, so we appreciate how important getting students back into classrooms is to regain a sense of normalcy.

Our deep partnerships with schools and educators have helped us understand how challenging these times are for students and families. That is why, as the focus shifts to returning students to in-person learning, our hearts ache for the students, families, and educators in DC’s public schools who are experiencing stress and fear caused by recent reopening decisions. We are supportive of DCPS’s decision to start Term 2 virtually for all students, and while families and educators anxiously await details of in-person options and plans for school staffing, this decision signals that stakeholder voices are being considered. That is hopeful and can be further cemented as details about in-person learning during Term 2 are decided.

As city officials make reopening decisions, there is much to be learned from the Term 2 rollout when it comes to building and maintaining something fundamental – trust.

We understand that there is no precedent for the situation we are all in, and it’s challenging to find a solution that feels right for everyone. But, in the urgency to get students physically back into school, the rollout of DCPS’s Term 2 reopening plan has eroded trust with families, educators, and the community at large. Reasons for this breakdown include decisions seemingly in direct opposition to what many families – especially DC’s most vulnerable families – are saying they need. School leaders and educators are learning about decisions that affect them from public press conferences and emails received at the same time as families, leaving them blindsided and unprepared for the questions they receive from their communities. Answers from city officials are perceived as not forthright, leading to significant skepticism about their motivations. This distrust is dealing a devastating blow to teacher-family relationships. We know that families often turn first to teachers for answers. When teachers and school leaders don’t have the information they need to support families, the trust they have worked hard to build is at risk.

This erosion of trust is dangerous. But it can be fixed.

At Flamboyan, we know a thing or two about building and maintaining trusting relationships. For more than 10 years, we have been a trusted family engagement partner with educators, schools, DCPS, charter LEAs, and education leaders across the city. We have witnessed first-hand and helped support the real and authentic bonds that educators have built with families. These bonds are delicate and only get stronger through consistency and transparency.

While there is much ahead we can’t foresee, there is a lot we know about how to proceed because we have invested substantial time in listening during this pandemic – including in support of DCPS and DME’s listening efforts over the summer. As a partner to educators, schools, and system leaders, we have seen up close how crucial trusting relationships are in successfully navigating times of crisis like the one we are living through. What erodes that trust is doing to people rather than building with them. As further decisions about in-person learning are made – which can be planned with significant educator, family, and community involvement – we ask that city officials approach the process in three ways:

Listen early and listen often. Ongoing listening to educators and families – especially those most vulnerable – is critical in guiding decision-making for back to school. Because the pandemic brings unique unknowns and countless extenuating variables, we must keep listening to and learning from families so that decisions meet their actual needs as contexts change. We urge city officials to heed the many concerns currently being elevated by principals, teachers, parents, and advocates. They are speaking. Please demonstrate you have heard them by acting on what they say.

Be transparent, even when the truth is hard. The self-expressed needs, perspectives, and best interests of DC students, families, and educators should be key determinants for school reopening decisions. Transparently sharing what you have heard and the data collected from listening to families is critical to building trust. And, when other factors need to be considered, even those which may not be popular, share those transparently as well. Families have the right to make decisions with ALL the information at their disposal.

Center equity, not equality, in decisions. Resources must be concentrated on students of families who have low income, specialized needs, or are experiencing homelessness, rather than focused on an equal distribution across all schools. What we know to be true is that when supports are centered on students most impacted by inequity, ALL students will experience the benefit. This is equity. City officials should prioritize those students’ voices, perspectives, and experiences, as they are particularly vulnerable to disparities in health, income, technology access, and socio-emotional supports. When they have an equitable education, all kids succeed.

These considerations may seem simple, but they are powerful when applied. As reopening plans evolve, we challenge you to ground your decisions in listening, shared power, equity, and relationships. And when you make mistakes, which may happen in this uncharted terrain, acknowledge the missteps with public-facing commitments to getting it right and asking for help as a step to rebuilding broken trust.

At Flamboyan, we will continue to do what we do best: partner with educators, school leaders, and system leaders to embed authentic family engagement within the culture and practice of schools. We will continue to listen deeply to our partners and elevate what we hear families and educators say they need most. We call for city officials to do the same.

Focused on Families,
Team Flamboyan

This statement was originally shared with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, Interim State Superintendent of Education Shana Young, PCSB Executive Director Michelle Walker-Davis, the Council of DC, and the DC State Board of Education.