Testimony to DC Council on Safe Return to School

Public Testimony

Testimony of Matthew Hanson, Chief of Staff of DC Action for Children before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole Joint Public Roundtable on Reopening District of Columbia Public Schools

Good afternoon Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole. Thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s public roundtable on reopening the District's public schools. My name is Matthew Hanson, and I am the Chief of Staff at DC Action for Children. On behalf of the organization, I appreciate the opportunity to add our voice to this conversation. 

DC Action for Children and DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA) recently merged to form an even stronger, independent voice for children and youth. We provide data analysis, policy solutions, and collective advocacy on critical issues facing young people and their families. We envision a District of Columbia where all kids, regardless of their race, family’s income, or zip code, have the opportunity to reach their full potential. We work to realize this vision through our numerous campaigns and policy and research initiatives, including DC Kids Count, the DC Out-of-School-Time Coalition, the Under 3 DC coalition and more.

Only when it’s safe. 

With over 34,612 cases and 864 deaths to date, the impact the pandemic has had on the District has been tragic. We know, however, that COVID-19 has hit Black and brown, and low-income residents the hardest, exacerbating just about every social inequity, including in education. While Latinx residents are only 11% of the population, they are 21% of those who have tested positive for COVID-19. And while Black residents are 45% of the DC population, they're 74% of the COVID-19 deaths, as of January 20.

There is still a lot that we do not know about the spread of COVID-19 among children and youth. Vaccines have not yet been tested on children and won’t be approved for months. Now, as a new strain emerges that is more easily transmittable, we strongly believe that we should not rush to return to in-person learning, especially when we can safely do so in the very near future. 

The Mayor recently announced that teachers would become eligible for vaccination beginning January 25, and with at least two weeks needed between doses, and time after that for the vaccine to take full effect, we believe the District should do the reasonable and safe thing by pushing back the start of limited in-person learning until that time. We know that the District does not yet have enough doses of the vaccine to vaccinate all frontline workers. Until more doses are available, we should not push teachers or other essential workers to return to work in person.

Return to in-person learning should not resume until educators have had an opportunity to get fully vaccinated. We’ve heard this from many teachers and it’s clear common sense guidance that other school districts are already following.  

This is the third time that the District has sought to reopen schools, and the third time serious concerns have been raised. The science, and the concerns of those directly impacted by the decision to return to in-person learning, should drive the decision making process about when and how to resume in-person learning, not an arbitrary date on the calendar. 

Seek greater community input, and plan for a long road ahead. 

Even with the arrival of vaccines, we also know that we need to plan for a long road ahead before we “return to normal.”

To that end, we also recommend the District consider the following recommendations:

Offer the vaccine to all educators. The District must include child care workers on the list of those who will become eligible for the vaccine beginning January 25. Providers across the District have kept their doors open throughout the pandemic, serving families who need access to care. It is an insult to these essential workers and educators to exclude them from the next round of people who will become eligible for vaccination. As we seek to build a truly universal early childhood education system, we should demonstrate to these important workers, like the rest of our teachers, that the District prioritizes their health and safety because they are caring for and educating our children. 

Even though there is a shortage of vaccines, there is no excuse for excluding early childhood educators from this first group, given that so many have already been working in person for so long. 

Draw on all of our existing resources. As home to the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition, we know how valuable OST programs are to supporting young people during the pandemic. They have been essential in connecting families with resources, providing community, and offering social emotional support. OST programs are also key to stemming learning loss and keeping students plugged into their schools, helping to reduce dropout. While we do not have a full or clear picture yet about the increase in education outcome disparities, we know that we will need to leverage all of our existing resources to work to close a widening gap. 

This is particularly important for students who have struggled during the pandemic and faced even greater barriers to accessing the education they deserve. In addition to mobilizing all of our resources, we hope all LEAs will clarify what will happen to students who have faced these challenges. Will they be required to repeat their grade? Will they be promoted? And what ongoing plans are there to support them?

DCPS and the charters must promote increased coordination and communication with OST partners, and ensure they are part of the planning process for reopening, such as inviting key programs to be part of the Reopen Community Corps, summer learning, and preparation for the next school year. 

Explore additional opportunities for safe in-person learning. We also support the State Board of Education’s recent resolution calling for “system-level support to make outdoor learning options accessible to all District students. This initiative is based on evidence that outdoor learning greatly reduces the spread of Covid-19, while improving student health, engagement, and academic outcomes.”

Families with means have been able to secure alternative education options, be they private learning pods, tutoring or extracurricular activities, while others have struggled with the added stress and pressure the pandemic has put on them, including participating in a virtual learning classroom. 

If outdoor learning allows students, teachers, and community based organizations, such as OST programs, to safely gather and learn together, we fully support it. 

In conclusion, we support efforts to resume in-person learning only when it’s safe, and that means giving educators and staff time to get fully vaccinated. We also believe that we need to do more to support young people and their families during the pandemic, and that means expanding the parameters of those eligible for vaccination to include all educators, including child care providers, and bringing in all of our partners into the reopening discussion, planning process to help support students, and stem the tide of learning loss.

January 21, 2021