DC Action's Testimony to DC Council Joint Committee Regarding Distance Learning

Public Testimony

 

Testimony of Kimberly Perry, Executive Director

DC Action for Children

 

Joint Public Oversight Hearing

on

Distance Learning in DC Public and Public Charter Schools

 

Before the Committee of the Whole and Committee on Education

Council of the District of Columbia

 

Friday, October 2, 2020

 

Good morning, Chairman Grosso, Chairman Mendelson, and members of the Joint Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to address the DC Council as it reviews the implementation of distance learning in our public schools. I am Kimberly Perry, Executive Director of DC Action for Children (DC Action). 

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 our young people. 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 are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, a data resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being. 

There are a lot of witnesses today because, while we were all sympathetic to the complexity of instituting distance learning, DCPS's implementation includes no consultation with teachers and no coordination and transparency with the broader school community, which has been disastrous for so many of our students and families. Our constituencies need your help in holding public schools accountable.

Our guiding principle in reopening should be Only When It’s Safe. The lack of authentic community engagement in the decision making process has helped contribute to a sense of distrust and concern that the process is being rushed. There is a better way to do this that does not exacerbate existing inequities, ensures children and youth receive the quality education support they deserve, and that we move forward in a way that meets the needs of all of our communities.

Due to the lack of timely information while awaiting reopening plans, families scrambled to determine how to meet their students’ learning needs in this new reality.  Families with resources have been able to quickly set up learning pods, hire tutors, or find ways to supplement distance learning to make the most of a difficult situation. And, they are aware of what a privilege that is. But, what about our students and families, many of whom are Black and brown, without the resources to make these accommodations? What about working parents who aren’t able to sit next to their children all day to make sure they’re logged in and following along with their classes? Virtual learning has been disastrous for many of them, another layer of stress, that honestly in this double pandemic of COVID and racism, they don’t need right now. 

There is also a deep lack of trust between families and the Chancellor and Mayor. This summer, when teachers and the mutual aid and advocacy communities asked the Mayor and DC Public Schools if students had the devices and wifi needed to learn effectively, they reported yes. But, that wasn’t true. At that time, nearly 40 percent of public school students did not have the appropriate technology to learn. Had it not been for the outcry of advocates and philanthropic sectors, recent efforts to provide technology and internet access would not have been deployed. This is only one example among many, but the point here is: public school families deserve leadership they can trust and that will be fully transparent with them.

We believe we need more elevated leadership from the Education Committee and the entire DC Council. Here are three (3) recommendations:

1. Do not rely on the Administration’s or the schools’ communications networks alone. The DC Council must urge partnership with community-based organizations with robust constituencies, like SBOE, civic associations, PAVE, DC Action, and others to effectively communicate timely details related to distance learning.

 

2. Let's find sufficient accommodation for students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Other school districts in the region have successfully set up “learning villages” where neighborhood school spaces and rec centers are opened and staffed by community-based organizations and out-of-school time programs, using PPE and safe distancing, to provide learning assistance and mentorship.

We would like to work with the DC Council to tell you more about these models with the goal of adopting them in our schools safely.

 

3. Building on that, we ask the DC Council to urge LEAs to leverage the resources and expertise of the expanded learning community, including OST providers. OST programs expand LEAs’ capacity to educate the whole child.  Among other things, OST partners contribute meaningfully to arts, athletics, health, school attendance, and academic attainment. Partners could be providing enrichment in person outside in small groups, in cooperation with individual schools, that could support and incentivize both enrollment and participation in the virtual school day.  

Instead, OST partners have been treated as a burden or, at best, a babysitting option -- not as a strategic partner in ensuring kids have what they need during this difficult time. Case in point: OST organizations have been excluded from any discussions at the city level about how to support the whole child during distance learning. If the city wants OST programs to be around for students when the pandemic ends, they need to be included in the conversation now. 

 

In summary, attending to the recommendations named will be important, but we must also reiterate: please refocus your attention on financing school equity. Working with students and families via video, we see first hand the economic challenges and less-than-ideal learning conditions of many students. Stay laser focused on deepening equity investments in schools and communities. We must provide an equal and quality education to every student.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide testimony. If you or Committee staff have any questions or need clarification, I can be reached at kperry@dckids.org.