Robert Henderson Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

Robert Henderson

Committee of the Whole

Public Roundtable on Re-Opening District of Columbia Public Schools and District of Columbia Public Charter Schools for School Year 2021-2022

September 21, 2021

Thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s roundtable. My name is Robert Henderson. I am a Ward 5 resident and parent, and vice chair of the Ward 5 Education Equity Committee. Conversations with and surveys of Ward 5 parents and families as well as direct communication with Ward 5 school leaders inform my testimony today.

We have heard from many parents and educators alike that they are excited to be back at school. Some parents have been very pleased with the communication they have received about COVID mitigation from their schools and feel confident in the measures being taken. However, we are also hearing from families and educators that mitigation practices are exhausting and difficult to implement in practice, from getting three-year-olds to wear masks consistently and maintaining social distance in crowded classrooms, to using recommended ventilation practices in buildings with failing HVAC systems. Additional mitigation strategies such as outdoor lunch have proven difficult for some schools to implement due to resources constraints.

Given that all of our 5 to 12 aged and an estimated 65%[1] of our 12 to 17 student population in Ward 5 remains unvaccinated and that mitigation strategies are imperfect at best, there should be a by-right virtual instruction option without requiring a medical waiver available to all students in the District of Columbia. For a district that celebrates its offering of “school choice,” surely one option should be to protect one’s family from exposure to COVID-19. Absent such a by-right virtual option, there should be no penalty to families or their schools of last enrollment for nonattendance. Considering the situation of a quarantining “close contact” with a sibling without the same exemption makes clear enough the absurdity of the current policies. As it stands, the choice of one person to return the city exclusively to in-person instruction essentially requires families to accept exposure or penalty.[2] Many families are willing to accept the risk of exposure to COVID, grateful for the opportunity to send children back to school, but I have heard from both DCPS and Charter parents that they are not comfortable sending their children back to school until they are vaccinated. While some charter schools have been able to provide a virtual option, most have not, and the surest way to provide the option universally, as usual, is through our by-right school system.

Like many of our families, school leaders and teachers have also been put in an impossible situation. These educators have become, more so than ever, public health officials, now doing the work of coordinating testing, contact tracing, and interpretation of health guidance all while trying to educate students. I can’t say it better than this Ward 5 Charter school elementary principal, who had to shut down three classrooms in just the first three weeks of school: “this is completely frustrating and exhausting. Staff are scared (vaccinated and unvaccinated), parents are terrified, and we are expected to work miracles during this crisis. I am not understanding why the elementary schools are not closed until we get a vaccine. We are playing Whack-A-Mole and this is not fair to our students, staff or families. It is akin to having an umbrella during a hurricane.”

There remains a good deal of confusion about communication regarding COVID cases such as who is considered a “close contact,” and under what circumstances families will be informed of a case at their child’s school as well as about the vaccination status of faculty and staff.

The availability of a vaccine for our younger students will make an enormous difference in the risk taken by in-person students, and for that reason it is imperative that the city have a coordinated plan for vaccination in place and ready to implement as soon as it is authorized for younger students. The schools simply must be better prepared than they have been to date.

On preparation, it is utterly unfathomable to me that schools opened with inadequate HVAC systems. At least three of Ward 5’s 13 DCPS schools opened with stop-gap HVAC measures such as spot coolers, which by the way are incredibly loud and make it difficult for students and teachers to hear each other, particularly when wearing masks. This after months of requests to DCPS and DGS. DCPS and DGS simply must do better to have our school buildings safe and ready for students. I will have more to share on this and related topics at the upcoming facilities hearing.

Another main concern during reopening has been pedestrian safety in light of significant traffic control challenges. Noyes Elementary could use more crossing guards. Browne Education Campus now has a crossing guard but did not at the beginning of the school year despite requests. Two Rivers Young needs a crossing guard on their early dismissal day. The latter two campuses are located in an area with only two perpendicular streets serving 5 school campuses including the newly opened Two Rivers Middle School and School Within a School @ Goding Swing Space. Phelps High School still has no flaggers or safety measures after months of pleading and requests. Each of the schools are doing their best, but the diffusion of responsibility for various parts of the infrastructure among DDOT and DGS have made it difficult to coordinate solutions, and the threat to student safety remains very real.

Additional concerns raised by school leaders include issues with COVID testing. While pleased with the city’s testing system overall, leaders note that it is difficult for the youngest kids to produce sufficient drool. It would help to have supplementary testing via shallow nasal swab (even though this would require adding another vendor.) It would also help if in the city’s program a saliva kit could be sent home with kids who are quarantined due to close contact so that they could self-administer the test on day 4 or 5 from exposure. Currently, families have to make arrangements to go to a testing site, which is a barrier.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I will have more to share regarding facilities needs next week.


[1] Estimate by Dr. Mary Levy, https://twitter.com/MaryLevy17/status/1439272324805632001.

[2] Except for the relatively few who have had medical waivers approved.

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