Testimony of Allyson Criner Brown
Committee of the Whole and Committee on Education Joint Public Roundtable on DCPS Return to In-Person Instruction
December 2, 2020
My name is Allyson Criner Brown. I live in Ward 8, am the parent of a DCPS 1st grader (as well as a 2 year old), and I am an LSAT member at Beers Elementary, my daughter’s school. I have also spent the last decade doing family engagement and parent organizing with DCPS schools in almost every Ward, though I am testifying solely as a parent and LSAT member.
As a Black woman who has already been forced to play medical roulette, ended up on a ventilator in the ICU, and barely made it out of the hospital with my life, I take this virus very seriously. Many of the vulnerable families that are being talked about, particularly in Wards 7 & 8 — whether they are being talked to isn’t clear — also take this virus very seriously. It is not just about the fatality rate. My spouse and I have two young children who need us, and we do not have immediate family nearby who could take them in. If one of us goes down with a fever or is effectively incapacitated for days, weeks, or months — and I do know people who have had that happen due to COVID — that could do serious harm to our children and our family. And to my daughter’s test scores, for those who need to hear that. Do not assume that offering the first seats for in-person instruction to children in the target categories is equivalent to an “equitable” plan. And those students are not distributed evenly across DCPS. Many of them will have to stay home to protect themselves and other family members. Many of the children who will supposedly benefit from in-person instruction NEED high quality distance learning. Any reopening plan needs to take into serious consideration any harms that could come from disrupting teacher assignments and school schedules, with vulnerable students in mind. What targeted support has DCPS done for these families besides rushing to reopen the schools? The Council should inquire about this. Distance learning is tough, but a lot of us — parents and teachers — are figuring it out as best as we can, and that’s the support we need right now.
I have some very sharp words to say about the poor engagement of parents and educators since the spring, but I don’t have much time. Transparency and communication are what build trust and confidence, not press conferences. When it comes to reopening: the Devil is in fact in the details, and many of the details important to parents and teachers are not clear, not available, or don’t add up. The walkthroughs that were done the week before in-person instruction was supposed to start with Term 2 revealed that by and large, many schools were not ready, including Beers. Parents, who each year buy tissue, cleaning wipes, and related items as “school supplies” — and who also know that the A/C and heating aren’t consistent in the building, by mid-year soap and toilet paper are running low in the bathrooms, and that many repairs are needed throughout the building — have questions and trepidation about the promises of adequate PPE, HVAC repairs, and processes for cleaning, screening, and communicating issues in the building.
Seven days ago the Beers team that is meeting to discuss reopening was full of concerns, several of which include:
- Concerns about meeting staffing needs (including allowing staff who need to stay home to stay home)
- How many students actually want to come back? Our CARES class attendance is already fluctuating and some classes have been very low.
- What will the school day actually look like?
- What if our school community does not agree with the District’s plan to force us to reopen?
- How many students can we “safely” have on campus?
What happens when teachers get sick? How can this be done without huge disruption when students and staff get sick? Schools East of the River have already had a harder time finding substitutes… what happens if and when that is needed? As a parent, these details matter to me! There still seems to be a lot of confusion at every level about what the plans are or might be, and then decisions are announced by press release. Each school community has its own considerations and concerns, and right now is the time to ask the teachers what support they need from the system to support students and families, especially those not as engaged.
Why is there no testing plan in place to detect asymptomatic cases? NYC and other urban centers that are opening have ongoing testing at the school as part of their reopening plans to help detect asymptomatic cases. Considering that people can still congregate to eat and do other activities indoors here in DC, that must be a part of any sound reopening plan. Most of the public testing sites are open 9am to 1pm. When are these “prioritized” teachers supposed to go?
Before my time is up, there are three charges I have for the Council.
First, we really still do not know what is going to happen with this pandemic or vaccine, so DCPS needs to support and allow its teachers to continue to improve their DL craft because there will be students who need that as their option. Not a backup option, but their way to access schools.
Second, there are supports families need during the pandemic that schools can not provide: rent relief; a basic income to meet basic needs and buy the extra “school supplies” some of us needed at home this year (like a desk, chair, and headsets for the kids); high speed internet across the city; pay and job protections for workers to stay home to be safe and so they can support children in distance learning. The Council can still take action on that and should. When schools do eventually reopen, many of these students and their families will be facing the same challenges that also impede student learning and growth.
Third, looking ahead to FY22, hold school budgets harmless next year. There are a lot of question marks about enrollment and what is going to happen. Schools may have lost students but they may get them back, and in some cases even more. Our schools were already underfunded by the UPSFF standards, and kids and staff will be coming back with even greater needs. Cutting the school budgets based on enrollment projections will be throwing a hand grenade into schools that can damage them for years to come. I told the Chancellor and his staff at the DCPS budget hearing a couple weeks ago that there is a question that parents will be asking themselves next year, and for reopening: “Do I feel confident that the school I’m sending my child back to will be resourced, staffed, and supported to meet their needs of my child and their peers?” I place the burden of that question on the shoulders of the Council and Mayor as well.