Testimony of Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, Director of Early Childhood Policy and Programs, DC Action for Children
Before the Public Roundtable on the District's COVID-19 Vaccine Process, Committee on Health
Friday, January 29, 2021
We understand that DC’s vaccine supply is limited and that the DC Department of Health has an unimaginably complex job to do in these unprecedented times. However, the District’s approach to vaccination of the education sector is alarming and inequitable.
Last week, DC Health announced that, while DC’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan includes child care staff with P-12 school staff in Phase 1B Tier 2, it would bifurcate this Tier (effectively resulting in two separate tiers) and usher DC Public Schools and DC Public Charter teachers and staff ahead of early educators. I want to be clear: We believe that all educators who want it should have access to the vaccine before they return to doing their indispensable work in person. But access to the vaccine must be equitable across the education sector and those already on the front lines must be prioritized. This week DCPS and DC Public Charter School staff began to receive the vaccine in anticipation of a rushed reopening of P-12 schools. Meanwhile, early educators and child care staff remained ineligible for the vaccine, yet continued to come to work in person, as they have for months. Claims that the limited nature of the vaccine supply drives this inequity are disingenuous- there are choices being made about what is important. The arbitrary division of the education sector to exclude educators serving young children devalues their important role and is a public health danger.
Like all levels of education, early learning is critical to a functioning society. It ensures that caretakers of young children can work, and that children receive early learning experiences that set them up to meet their full potential. The majority of DC’s 468 child care programs have been open since November, when DC put policies into place that pressured many programs to reopen or lose an important source of revenue. Some programs have been open for the entirety of the pandemic, with educators anxiously navigating their own fears about COVID, carefully weighing the risk to themselves and their families, and struggling to stay afloat when costs per child have more than doubled and their income has steeply dropped. Through it all, child care educators and staff have leapt through hoops to keep the children in their programs safe and stimulated. We have already asked too much of our early educators. Asking them to wait behind others as they continue to put it all on the line is unacceptable.
Too much in our history has been built on the exploitation of women, Black and brown people, and especially those at the intersections of these groups doing work that is necessary for our society to function. Passing up early educators and other child care staff furthers this legacy of exploitation by requiring already undercompensated, undervalued early educators to continue putting their health on the line in favor of other educators, the majority of whom are not yet teaching in person.
Delaying access to the vaccination prolongs one of the child care sector’s greatest challenges during COVID: staffing. When we surveyed 170 child care staff in November, we found that staffing shortages posed a consistent barrier for programs, as some staff delayed returning to work due to health concerns related to COVID, and that the need for temporary staff is high due teacher exposure to or contraction of the virus. Finding substitutes is costly, and every new person in an early learning program brings with them increased risk for spreading the virus. Priority access to the vaccine for early educators would help address these challenges.
While pre-registering child care staff for the vaccine is an important step in the direction of making the vaccine available to all educators who want it, the Mayor and DC Health have yet to substantively correct their inequitable approach to vaccination to date. Right now there is no actual registration date for early educators and an unclear timeline for vaccine delivery to early learning program staff. Further, as the days pass, the disparity in access to vaccination between educators grows. We urge DC Health to immediately open vaccine appointments up to child care staff and correct the imbalance caused by delaying vaccine availability for child care.