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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Mary Levy Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on School Facility Conditions During Reopening for SY2022 – September 28, 2021

Mary Levy

Testimony for DC Council Roundtable

on School Facility Conditions During Reopening for SY2022 –

September 28, 202

Little specific data on DCPS facilities is issued publicly.  What information there is includes the general condition of each building and its modernization status.  I have combined these with statistics on the at-risk enrollment by school.[1] Result:  62% of schools that serve the greatest number of at-risk students are only in fair to poor condition, compared with 25% of schools that serve the fewest at-risk students.

Results by ward are similar, given what we know about the differences among DC wards.  Only half the schools East of the River have been modernized compared with 100% of those West of the Park.  By ward, according to the latest data published, 44% of schools in Ward 8, compared with 60% in Wards 5-7, and 100% Ward 3 have been modernized. We should not be surprised when the HVAC fails in non-modernized schools, or conditions otherwise disfavor learning.

This is a public health problem.  At-risk students, particularly those in Wards 5, 7 and 8, live in communities with the highest incidence of COVID, inter-generational households, and the lowest vaccination rates, including those of teenagers. This means that when their schools have bad air, COVID is likely to spread, disproportionately affecting them, their families and their communities.

The danger of COVID infection is not limited to the approximately 33,000 DCPS students below the 7th grade level, who cannot be vaccinated, but also to the thousands of secondary students who are not fully vaccinated.  Figures are not available by sector of enrollment, but citywide, this is 61% of all teenagers and huge numbers in the same low-income communities many of whose DCPS facilities are not modernized and in fair to poor condition.  Their buildings are not in condition even for COVID prevention, let alone effective learning.


Everyone agrees that in-person schooling is best for students, but DCPS insistence that it is the only way is based on the insistence that the buildings and practices are safe, and that is a false assumption, as shown by the reports of dozens and dozens of eyewitnesses.  This did not have to happen.  The school system and the DC government have had months to plan and implement functioning HVAC systems with appropriate filters, virtual learning for families that want it (thereby enabling more social distancing), outdoor lunch, adequate masks and protective equipment, robust testing, contact tracing, full reporting.

Why do DC officials have so little respect for parents that they refuse to respect demonstrable needs of some for distance learning and indeed, refuse to believe their eyewitness reports of what is actually happening in schools?  Community spread is officially considered to be high. The latest data – release of which has slowed to a crawl — shows new cases and hospitalization levels that put the District far into the red zone where we used to shut things down, and most other metrics have us in Phase 2. Yet, seven-day averages/thousand for DCPS are far above citywide averages.[1]

Where is any sense of urgency?  Are we happy as long as we can have indoor dining and live performances in theaters and concert venues for the well-to-do, vaccinated adults from around the region?  As COVID spreads through schools, it will rebound right back into the community, especially the communities hardest hit and least vaccinated, people of color and vulnerable states of health.  Do they and their children generally not count? 


[1] 2020 Master Facilities Plan Update, December 2020 and Annual Enrollment Audit, Fall 2020.

[1] https://twitter.com/DJoseph31/status/1441517560701374465/photo/1


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Heather Schoell Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on School Facility Conditions During Reopening for SY2022 – September 28, 2021

Heather Schoell

Testimony for DC Council Roundtable

on School Facility Conditions During Reopening for

SY2022 – September 28, 2021

Submitted Testimony Followed by Actual Points Made

Thank you to the Council for the opportunity to share my perspectives. My name is Heather Schoell and I’m the PTO president of Eastern Senior High School.

The pandemic has left us all raw, but we have to push through it. That’s what teachers and school staff are doing, but they don’t work in a vacuum; it takes all the supporting agencies to do their jobs, too. In the best of times, it’s uncomfortable to be in a hot room, but we’re not in the best of times. DCPS swears the air quality in schools is fine because the air quality company DGS hired says it is. You’re only as good as your word, so sorry, but it’s a leap of faith over a canyon to take DGS at their word. After years of dealing with them, every school teacher, custodian, and administrator knows that! Custodial staff can only do so much to get them through when DGS doesn’t do what needs to be done.

DGS had well over a year to make necessary fixes in school buildings. I understand there are supply chain issues, but 18 months is a lot of days and a lot of missed opportunities to work in empty buildings. Now they’re not empty – kids are sweating in 80+ degree classrooms. They’re having to cross to the opposite side of the building to go to the bathroom because of burst pipes. There are work orders from two years ago that have been marked as complete, but were never fixed. It took Council intervention to move the needle at Eastern last year. So what else is new? That’s how things get done in the District, by out-squeaking the other wheels. That’s why there’s an imbalance and an inequality among resources by Ward, including the physical state of schools.

I don’t need four minutes to tell you that we need to hold DGS accountable for their assignments, and it should go without saying that the work should be done well and in a timely fashion. Would you call back a plumber who took a year to fix your leaky sink, or be a loyal customer to the company that keeps NOT fixing your A/C? Why are we allowing this waste and mediocrity to perpetuate? I’ll tell you why – it’s because it’s kids and teachers. Adults with any power wouldn’t stand for discomfort at work. If your office was 86 degrees, you’d turn around and walk out. But kids and teachers don’t have the power to do that. 

This school year has started out rough – teachers are quarantined, so there aren’t enough adults in the building to cover classes. It took parents to get DCPS to stop marking quarantined siblings as unexcused. We’re still holding daily indoor banquets – at least 5 per week, but again, it’s kids and teachers having to sit in school lunch rooms, so not adults with the power to refuse. 

Do the right thing; use your influence to right wrongs:

  1. Put a stop to this monopoly on facilities and demand accountability. We need DGS to do their job so that schools can do theirs, and we need a smarter and more organized system of repair requests. If there are 3 broken door alarms at a school, that should be 1 visit, not 3 – DUH. Maybe assign a team (or at least a point person) to schools so they know buildings’ ins and outs?
  2. We need a hybrid school solution, at least until the vaccine is authorized for under 12s. There’s already a remote learning system in place – access should be expanded so as to not put added pressure on teachers to simultaneously teach to home and in-person students.
  3. We need a COVID vaccination mandate for all who are eligible; nothing will change in school COVID safety until that’s done.

Thank you.

Actual Points Made:

I wanted to give voice to Mr. Woodfork, Eastern’s head custodian. Last year he shared with me how things work, and I learned just how broken the work order system is, and I shared that with CM White’s staff. Listen to the head custodians. They know the buildings and they know how a redone reporting system should work. The 311 reporting system is already in place. They could use that same system for school facilities needs reporting and tracking.

Stop the silo. Integrate other agencies to make things work. CM White asked parents what to prioritize – the Dept of Housing knows exactly what to prioritize for safety. Bring in DPR for outdoor resources, DOH for testing, etc..

Quit giving DGS and their construction contracts a pass. CM Allen mentioned Maury’s A/C being out after only 2 years, but their roof started leaking right away. That should be noted so we don’t use that company again.


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Danica Petroshius Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on School Facility Conditions During Reopening for SY2022 – September 28, 2021

Danica Petroshius, DCPS Parent Testimony

Joint Public Oversight Roundtable on

School Facility Conditions During the Re-Opening for School Year 2021-2022

My name is Danica Petroshius and I am a parent of 2 children at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan. One of my children is 1 vaccinated and 1 is unvaccinated due to being only 11.

After 18 months of keeping my family safe, after 4 days in school, COVID spread through our house. My unvaccinated son was the first reported COVID case in our school and my vaccinated daughter was the 2nd. He contracted COVID in school and then spread it to my daughter and me, and we are both vaccinated. He participated in a random 10% sampling test where he tested NEGATIVE on the 4th day of school and was positive by the following Monday, found by a test administered by our private doctor. I followed DCPS rules and sent my vaccinated child to school against my gut – and 2 days later she tested positive too. This means that the city told me to send her to school while she was contagious, potentially infecting other children. I still to this day am wrestling with that fact in my own moral compass.

That experience taught me first hand how the city is not doing enough to keep schools COVID-safer. Please listen to – and believe – me, and other parents, when we tell you what is really happening. Don’t believe the messaging and talking points. When you take the Mayor’s, DME’s and DCPS’s “word for it” you are complicit in supporting transmission, spread and unsafe practices in our schools.

During our family quarantines, my fellow CHML parent Shelley Carr-Brown and I wrote a letter to the Mayor, ccing all of you, asking you to move quickly to change the rules based on what we learned about where the gaps are. We were fully transparent about our family COVID experiences and specific about our recommendations. I have attached the letter to this testimony. In summary, our simple, easy-to-do recommendations that were included are:

  • Improve transparency and communications including classroom level reporting of cases and faster turn around on all communications
  • Testing all students weekly
  • Fully resource and support safe, outdoor eating for all schools, all students
  • Strengthen quarantine rules for household members, vaccinated or not
  • Improve nap room safety
  • Offer a quality Virtual Option for any family that needs it and for all students in quarantine

The DME responded to our letter and recommendations saying that the city is already doing everything just fine and schools are safe. I have also included our marked, fact check of his letter to us. His claims do not meet the reality on the ground. In addition, I have attached a mark up of the city’s covid tracing – it does not work how they say it does.

We are one month into school and city leaders, including all of you, are “listening” but not acting. Instead, it seems you are doubling down with the Executive on the narrative that everything is working just fine. Parents know it is not just fine. We can do better to keep families safe and slow transmission. We ask you to resist being complicit; to refuse to accept that you are powerless to act.

I have heard Council spew arguments about the bureaucratic obstacles in place that stop you from acting to make COVID safer schools such as:

  • The Mayor controls reprogramming of funds, not us
  •  Legislation takes too long and the Mayor can just ignore what we say
  •  Emergency legislation can’t have a cost so it’s so limiting
  • We have no real leverage because the Mayor controls schools

Parents are tired of excuses. When the Council wants to do something – NONE OF THOSE EXCUSES  MATTER. You find power. Please find all of your super powers now.

For example, while it is the Executive that submits reprogrammings, it is Council that must approve them. You are not powerless here.

Yes, permanent legislation takes a long time to become law but just working on it can move the Executive to change and you started work on COVID-safer schools too late. You could have – and parents asked you to – done oversight of reopening last spring and started working on legislation then, or two months ago, or one month ago. But you didn’t.

And yes, the Executive does ignore you sometimes. Why do you think that is and what are you doing to change it?

There is no law that emergency legislation can have no fiscal impact but it is your practice. Further, we know that if the Chairman supports the legislation, whatever fiscal impact there is “can be absorbed” in the agency’s budget. We aren’t falling for this.

Finally, yes, the Mayor controls DCPS and charter schools are on their own. But you are our state legislature. You make the laws and you oversee Mayoral control. Stop making excuses. Let’s fix it together.

As a voter, taxpayer and parent I ask: why is it that you won’t act now for safer schools and a virtual option. If our calls for action last Spring to best prepare for the fall weren’t enough, last week’s hearing should have propelled you into action. But it didn’t. And I am angry.

I am angry that you listened to parents, educators and community members telling you their lived truths yet you seem to just accept and believe the executive while they danced and lied to you – and then did nothing to improve the situation.

Let me just remind you of a few of the half-truths and untruths that the Executive told you last week – what are you doing about it today? Tomorrow? Every day?

Untruth 1: Last Spring we had low cases in kids, so planning changed last minute this fall when cases rose and we are adjusting.

Truth 1: Everyone knows that last Spring very few kids were in person. Parents knew: when you go to full capacity, we are going to need to be ready with all we got to curb spread. The city failed here to plan and prepare adequately.

Untruth 2: Soon we will have a vaccine for ages 5-11 which will make things all better.

Truth 2: No. Vaccines are just one layer of mitigation and we still have 3 and 4 year olds in school. If we don’t make it much safer in schools then we will continue to spread (my family is a great example).

Untruth 3: In person learning is the only learning experience we need and the only safe experience.

Truth 3: There are families with serious health risks and thousands of others in quarantine. By not offering a virtual option for all, we risk exacerbating learning gaps and threatening the fabric of household family structures. 

Untruth 4: DCPS has provided every school with the support they need for outdoor breakfast and lunch.

Truth 4: FALSE.

Untruth 5: Communications go to the class level, not only the close contacts and whole school.

Truth 5: FALSE. This is only true if the whole class is quarantining. It is not true when a few people are told to quarantine.

UnTruth 6: DCPS Chancellor said “We are not unenrolling children at this time.”

Truth 6: Did you see what he did there? “not at this time…” Right because as he was testifying, he was sending CFSA to homes across the city for keeping children home where parents and caregivers feel they are COVID-safer. And guess what, at least one family – LAST NIGHT – was told they are being unenrolled. It only took the Mayor and DCPS a week after that lie to kick kids out of school during a pandemic. This is not a DC to be proud of.

TBD Untruth: Today: whatever they say, just know that: our facilities are NOT COVID-safer. We have schools across the city with serious air quality and HVAC issues. Schools communities are scrambling to supply what DCPS has not – enough HEPA filters, furniture, small kid-fitting masks, testing and more. THIS IS WRONG.

There were and will be more untruths. In every hearing the Executive lies to you or doesn’t know what is going on in their own schools. But it has to stop. It’s not funny. It’s not cute when the leaders think of cute phrases to duck the truth. Kids are getting sick. Educators are getting sick. And everyone in the Council and Executive seem to happily work on Zoom and go home at night and sleep well while the rest of us worry. That is not leadership.

Please read the attachments carefully and consider all of the data and recommendations.I specifically want to highlight that we need you to:

Support weekly testing for all kids in schools – and if you won’t do it – at least let us do it. CDC recommendations say that while 10% random testing is a start, it’s not optimal. That weekly testing (or more) of all students is best for limited transmission. Yet DCPS is sticking to 10% only (and not even meeting that level a month into school). So parents like those at my all-wards school called a provider who – AT NO COST TO ANY PARENT – would set up a tent at any school or location to allow easy-to-access testing. Parents at our school organized it – and were hoping to have a table, tent, and electricity from the school. DCPS shut it down. We moved it a block away to a lovely neighborhood coffee shop that was accommodating and the line was around the block – school families or neighbors could participate. Demand is high. We recommend that DCPS put a site at every school weekly for all families – and at a minimum don’t stand in the way of families who want to protect their family AND school community from transmission.

Supply adequate outdoor furniture and cover for all schools. We heard the Chancellor say in last week’s hearing that all schools have what they need to do outdoor learning. They do not. In his letter, the DME said the opposite – that we are not supporting outdoor learning at the system level because not all schools feel safe with outdoor learning. Yet every day, unmasked indoor lunch and breakfast are potential super spreader events in schools. We are in a public health crisis. Public health should come first. The DME has it wrong – fund and SUPPORT EVERY school in creating safe outdoor learning to limit COVID transmission including tables, chairs, tents, rain cover and heating devices. For schools where outdoor safety or lack of space is a concern, do specialized outreach to each of those schools and trouble shoot – provide them the intense, creative, specialized support they need to ensure that the system is doing all we can for every school. COVID safer has to come first and you don’t do that by always reverting to the lowest common denominator of safety.

Send support NOW to our Nap Rooms across the city. Our nap rooms- full of UNMASKED, UNVACCINATED 3 and 4 year olds who will not have any vaccine any time soon, are not COVID-safer in many schools. They are often small and windowless. Some have outlets, some do not. Not every nap room has a HEPA filter. If the generic “cubic feet per machine” definition that DCPS relies on restricts you, you may not have a HEPA filter in your nap room. This means that we are literally having a potential super spreader event every day in every nap room. We have to do better.

Fix every school’s air quality, HVAC and other building issues immediately. It should have been done by the first day of school. It was not. It was a failure by the Mayor and lack of oversight by Council for not ensuring that this happened on time.

There are more recommendations in the attached. I hope you will consider them all and act swiftly to ensure that schools are COVID safer and there is a virtual option for all who need it.

Thank you.


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Sandra Moscoso Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

Sandra Moscoso
Testimony

on behalf of the DC Open Government Coalition

September 21, 2021

Good afternoon Chairman and Councilmembers. I am Sandra Moscoso, a DC Public Schools (DCPS) parent and a Board Member of the DC Open Government Coalition (DCOGC). Today, I am providing testimony on behalf of the DCOGC highlighting the lack of transparency around DCPS safety measures, building readiness and Covid protocols for in person learning. 

On DCPS’ reopen website, they boast “more than $24 million in HVAC upgrades to improve filtration and ventilation in every DCPS building.” This is misleading, as in reality, in the weeks that led to reopening, we saw teachers across the city post shocking photos of stifling hot temperatures and classrooms with stagnant air. While DCPS deployed temporary spot cooling units in some cases, three weeks into the school year, we don’t know how many classrooms were impacted, or how many of those HVAC repairs are still outstanding.

  • The DC Department of General Services must make school building work orders public. This would go a long way towards helping DGS and Council hold contractors accountable with the help of communities directly affected by these classroom spaces.
  • Transparency around building health and safety is critical not only in the time of Covid and has been a long-term problem. Council cannot let this go any longer.

DCPS and DC Health are not following through on their own Covid protocols.

DC Health and OSSE/DCPS must collaborate and quickly develop a school level dashboard to reflect school level vaccination rates, testing, positive cases, exposures, and notifications (see a great example developed by a Ward 4 teacher). Council must use every tool available to make this happen. I have heard the Mayor, Dr Nesbit and the Chancellor call upon the community to support Covid efforts, yet we are not being given the information to do meaningfully. Every single school community member should be able to access critical school level data at the very least weekly: 

Vaccination Rates

  • Percent of staff vaccination rates by school 
  • % of eligible students vaccinated by school

Testing

  • # of staff asymptomatic tests conducted each week by school
  • # of staff positive results from asymptomatic tests by school
  • # of student symptomatic tests conducted each week by school
  • # of student positive results from symptomatic tests by school
  • # of student asymptomatic tests conducted each week by school
  • # of student positive results from asymptomatic tests by school
  • # of staff and # of student positive cases reported to DCPS (outside of symptomatic tests) by school

Notifications

  • # of exposure notifications sent to staff each week by school
  • # of exposure notifications sent to families each week by school

Quarantine

  • # of exposure notifications sent to staff each week by school
  • # of exposure notifications sent to families each week by school

While the above is a request for DCPS transparency, it’s important that we recognize there are many families who currently have students enrolled in DCPS and in DC public charter schools. Transparency must apply to both sectors, and all schools.

Finally, as a parent I want to fully express support for the sensible safety measures and call for virtual learning for those who want it, that “DC Families for COVID-Safer Schools” have proposed. 

Every day, families are being asked to trust DC government with our lives by forcing students into school buildings during a pandemic. However, DC government refuses to trust us with critical information about the state of health and safety within those buildings. 

I reiterate and implore you to protect us all by leveraging every tool available to Council to bring transparency to DCPS reopening.

Thank you for your time.

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Grace Hu Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

Grace Hu

Digital Equity in DC Education

Testimony

September 21, 2021

My name is Grace Hu. I am a DCPS parent and one of the co-leads for the Digital Equity in DC Education parent coalition. Since 2018, our parent group has advocated for a comprehensive multi-year technology plan to ensure that all DCPS students and schools have access to devices, tech support, digital literacy skills, and internet. Today I’d like to provide a status on DCPS technology and urge you to push DCPS to ensure that all schools are tech ready ASAP, not only to prevent further disruptions to learning but also to ensure students can continue to learn in the event of a quarantine or broader shift to virtual learning.

In many cases, the technology challenges we are seeing reflect similar themes that you will hear about other DCPS challenges, including:

  • Even when the funding and policy are in place, the school system has difficulty executing.
  • When adequate technology supports are not centrally and comprehensively provided to every school, there is wide variation in tech resources as well as policy and procedure implementation at the local school level, which exacerbates inequities.

Our testimony to the Council of the Whole from March 2021 highlighted the need to be tech ready at the start of this school year, stating, “We do not need tech challenges to create additional disruptions and barriers as students and teachers work hard to close learning gaps created or exacerbated by the pandemic.” Currently, there are instances in which technology is largely working for schools, but there are also situations in which technology challenges are creating disruptions and barriers for students and teachers.

Devices

Despite the DCPS policy that every student in grades 3-12 and every teacher will be issued a device, there are still schools in which students and teachers are lacking devices. That lack of devices means:

  • Logistical challenges for beginning-of-the-year online assessments
  • Limited access to online programs being used as part of in-school instruction
  •  Teachers and students will not be ready to quickly move to virtual learning during quarantines

The tech situation varies from school to school. For example, in my daughter’s third grade class at Amidon-Bowen Elementary, all students have been issued their own computer to use at school. During the school day, the class logs onto Canvas, DCPS’s online learning management system. If her class were to ever pivot to online learning, the students would know how to access Canvas and will have devices available to use. In contrast, another elementary school across town (in Ward 1) is short over 100 student devices and as of last week also had not received teacher devices.

I urge you to ask DCPS when every single school will have a 1:1 student-device ratio for grades 3-12 and a 1:1 teacher-device ratio. 

Asset Management/Tech Support

In a survey of school leaders that DCPS Central Office conducted over the summer, the top technology concern was asset management. Whether a school has adequate devices largely depends on whether the school was able to collect devices that were issued last school year, get accurate computer counts for their school inventory, and then request additional devices and get them delivered to the school before the start of school or during the first week of school. As we have mentioned before, many schools lack the staff capacity to regularly update their tech inventory, handle the logistics of device distribution and collection, and handle other aspects of tech management.  Until DCPS Central and OCTO provide comprehensive, organized asset management support for schools, there will continue to be wide variation in tech management at schools, depending on the ability and capacity of school staff who already have full-time responsibilities.

We understand that the additional 15 OCTO technicians funded by federal ESSER money will not be onboarded until October at the earliest. This is a system failure. Tech support should be firmly in place in advance of the school year to ensure that all classrooms are well-equipped, and any building infrastructure issues are resolved to enable seamless learning on Day 1. Tech preparedness and support is most critical at the beginning of the year when teachers and students are adjusting to their devices, online learning platforms, and apps, and participating in online assessments to inform teaching and learning.

We continue to hear that OCTO technicians are not always able or willing to address tech issues and that they recommend workarounds that are outside standard protocol rather than address the core issue (see Appendix for example).

Classroom Technology

We continue to hear significant frustration across DCPS schools with Smartboards in classrooms. Issues include:

  • Smartboards are out of warranty and non-functional
  • Lack of compatibility with teacher devices (older Smartboards or Promethean boards are not compatible with new teacher devices)
  • Inability to install needed software on teacher devices
  • Lack of training and support for teachers

The problems with maintaining and refreshing Smartboards, which have existed for years, reflect a larger issue with the school system’s piecemeal approach to technology. When tech purchases are made but not accompanied by a comprehensive plan for regular maintenance and refresh, teachers and students end up with a hodgepodge of classroom technology with minimal assistance from DCPS Central or OCTO.

All the issues I’ve highlighted with devices, tech support, and classroom technology make us highly doubtful that all schools will be ready soon to provide functional, high-quality online learning in the event of quarantines or a larger pivot to virtual learning due to COVID-19.   

Internet

Regarding home internet, hotspots and LTE-enabled devices purchased during the pandemic remain in school inventories. However, policies for taking technology home vary by school.

Regarding school internet (i.e., WiFi inside school buildings), we continue to hear of issues with school WiFi, including students being unable to connect to the DCPS WiFi network. It is not uncommon for teachers and high school students to use their own hotspots on cell phones to access internet while in the school building due to speed and stability issues.

Without strong oversight from Council, technology challenges will continue to be a barrier and distraction for our students and teachers. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

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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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Elizabeth Mitchell Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

TESTIMONY BEFORE THE COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE 

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COUNCIL

Roundtable on School Reopening 

Elizabeth Callanan Mitchell September 21, 2021

I am testifying here today both as a member of the Executive Committee of the Ward 3 Democrats and as the parent of two DCPS elementary students. 

In April 2019, Ward 3 Democrats passed a resolution that asked for the Mayor and City Council to increase transparency, accessibility, and accountability while also giving significant weight to the needs and wants of the communities our schools were built to serve. 

As you have already heard today, it feels as if the Mayor and DCPS have been failing miserably at all of this. Rather than meeting families and students where they are and ensuring they are getting the services and education they need and are owed, we’ve witnessed the powers that be treating our schools as if they are a business. Releasing school plans less than two weeks before the beginning of the school year not only further erodes trust, but it also leaves families and students with no other options when confronted with a plan that was clearly designed to maintain enrollment numbers and keep schools open rather than keeping students educated, healthy and safe. It also fails to acknowledge the Delta variant at all. 

In June 2020 we asked the city to meet the anticipated public demand for free COVID testing and screenings, fully fund mental health and wellness programs for the city’s children, commit to no budget cuts for schools in the midst of this pandemic, and establish a dyslexia screening, treatment and prevention pilot program. 

From what I’ve seen as a parent, DCPS is failing at all of these goals. There is not nearly enough COVID testing. This administration seems to have ripped a page out of the Trump playbook-if we don’t test for it, we won’t find it! Well it’s certainly at our school. We’re currently tied for second in the city for the most COVID cases but the WORST part is all of our cases were caught with independent testing conducted at the private expense of the families in our school. A year ago almost to the day, Ward 3 Democrats hosted a meeting focused on this very subject that included Professor Michael Mina who talked at length about how important COVID testing was for a safe return to school. Apparently the Deputy Chancellor was more focused on her own comments because it appears DCPS listened to none of what Dr. Mina had to say. 


Parental volunteers in our community are working on their own contact tracing because they couldn’t wait on DCPS. Our ability to provide special services to our students is severely curtailed by the fact that many of our offices used for these services are in a part of the building with a broken HVAC and DCPS will only provide filters for classrooms. Our teachers and staff are stretched so thin trying to teach, contact trace, monitor for proper mask wearing and maintain their own health that I have no hope of them being able to participate in any sort of dyslexia screening or training programs which we need now more than ever. Rather than holding school budgets harmless, I see school administrators across the city being pressured to increase enrollment and keep students in seats by any means necessary until October 5th-not because it’s what’s best for the health, safety and wellness of our students or their education but because those are the metrics they need to meet to satisfy the administration. Rather than staffing up for the next 10 years, I see systems in place that are forcing teachers out when we already have a terrible retention rate. We need more Covid testing, more teachers, a virtual option for the students who need it, and quarantine protocols that actually acknowledge what Delta is and how it works. It would help me sleep at night to hear the Chancellor just say “Delta” once.

Thank you. 

Outdoor Public Hearing on DCPS Reopening, Tuesday, 9/21 @ 5 pm

For those who are interested, the DC Caucus of Rank and File Educators is holding an outdoor public hearing on DCPS reopening on Tuesday, September 21, at 5 pm at Watkins Elementary School (420 12th St., SE). The hearing will focus on increasing virtual options for those who want it, more transparency around close contacts/contact tracing, and more and better covid testing. Attached is a flyer about the hearing.

Suzanne Wells

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