Alexandra Simbana Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

Alexandra Simbana

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

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and Councilmembers. Like many parents, we began the summer with hope about our 9-year-old daughter returning to school in the Fall, and hoped the country had finally turned the corner on the pandemic.

Instead, we are now in the fourth wave.  Case counts are rising higher and faster than they were when our schools shut down in 2020. For our family, the danger is real and it is personal.  Last year, I had a life-threatening case of COVID that landed me in the hospital for nine traumatic days, and has left me with long COVID complications ever since.  Because I am immunocompromised, a simple cold I caught from my twin toddlers in late August quickly developed into pneumonia.  It took four rounds of antibiotics and I was nearly hospitalized again.

We also faced the reality that schools are not prepared for the surging pandemic.  We were promised better ventilation.  Instead, my daughter’s classroom had a broken HVAC system, with temperatures soaring into the high 80s.  We were promised strict quarantine and isolation protocols.  Instead, we learned that when a child tests positive, the other students in the class aren’t considered a “close contact” as long as their desk isn’t immediately adjacent to the positive case.  It is a fantasy to believe that kids don’t mingle in the course of a school day or breathe the same air.  DCPS’ quarantine and isolation protocols seem to have been designed by someone who has never been in a fourth grade classroom. These kids don’t live in their lives simply based on the close contact map.

Given my immunocompromised status and our deep concerns about safety, our daughter is learning from home, using workbooks and online portals to complete the same lessons as her classmates, and sending homework to her teachers. 

This would be easier if the Mayor had not prohibited our schools from establishing a virtual option.  The Virtual Academy that does exist is only available to students with serious health conditions, but not for situations like ours where the student lives with an immunocompromised person.  We would prefer she be in school – if that were a safe option.  I am vaccinated, but she is not eligible.  I could not live with myself if she gets sick.  We also worry what happens if she brings the virus home and I am reinfected with a breakthrough case – in my compromised state, would I be able to recover?

Until the first day of school, it remained an ongoing discussion in our family about whether to send our daughter to school. What would we do? We decided we would take it week by week and keep our eyes on the numbers but at least our daughter would continue to learn thanks to the support from her teachers and her school.  But when the school reopened it was clear that the building wasn’t ready, teachers didn’t have the curriculum they needed for teaching, school devices for teachers and students weren’t available and the more you looked, the messier the reopening “plan” looked at every school across the city. It was clear, as hard as teachers could try, these greater issues were outside of their individual school’s control and it would be just a matter of time before there would be a mountain of COVID cases everywhere. The problems were not limited to one school, instead it was clear these were systemwide issues. The lack of preparedness, the lack of resources for teachers and schools, the realities of reopening were not being addressed or even acknowledged for school communities – ALL of that is what lead many parents to keep their kids home. And many more parents had the same concerns but felt they had no option but to send their kids back into unsafe conditions for in person learning because DCPS didn’t provide any real options for families to access virtual learning. Students/children are all members of families and the health conditions of those families are not considered by DCPS to be material information to make available a virtual option for students. But there is a great need for virtual learning for those students who have been sent home due to exposure or COVID positive cases. These children are also being left behind without any educational plans to pivot to when they are suddenly returned home to quarantine.

There is so much that is wrong with the reopening. Parents continue to grasp for information which should be readily available. Our children are unprotected by lack of testing and delays with notifications and our teachers are being asked to risk their own health on a daily basis. Their pandemic is still very much at its height because the comfort of a vaccine for those under age 12 is still in their distant future. But even after a vaccine we will need to continue to take precautions to keep everyone safe. Below are recommendations of what we need to continue to do but with more efficiency and reliability.

I am working with a coalition of DCPS and charter school parents from across the city (DC Families for COVID-Safer Schools) who want to see BOTH better safety protocols for in-person learning and a workable virtual option.

We strongly urge the following:

  • Expanded testing, taking advantage of free, federally funded programs to test as close to 100 percent of the students and teachers as possible.
  • Faster notifications that provide better information to the entire school community
  • Greater transparency in data reporting
  • Outdoor lunch – available to all students, in all wards
  • Improving ventilation and filtration in classrooms
  • Making quality masks available to all students and teachers and ensuring that they are worn correctly.
  • Better social distancing protocols
  • Establishing a virtual option for families who need it or want it. Furthermore, given how unpredictable the pandemic is and the fact that outbreaks can spread out of control very quickly, we should be ready to pivot to virtual learning at a moment’s notice if necessary. We still aren’t where we need to be on digital resources. Teachers still don’t have devices, Smartboards are non-functional at a critical time of need and many schools are still not at 1:1 devices for students.

Lastly, I want to raise the struggle of many families like my own who have chosen to keep our children home due to rising COVID numbers and family health complications which place us at greater risk. Each family is making choices based on their situations during an emergent time. These families and students should not be penalized when they can clearly demonstrate continued learning, attendance through the online programming and efforts above the norm. These families should not be cut off from their schools because their medical needs place them in great danger of health complications from COVID. If a virtual learning option was already in place to help students who move into quarantine, then families of immunocompromised would be able to be serviced without more of a burden. But the truth is DCPS has not planned to help children continue to learn during quarantine and that is a disservice to students and their long term learning.

Members of the Council: the reopening plan is broken.  Our students and teachers are at risk.  We need you to step in and take action.

Thank you.

.

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