Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve. I am here to testify about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and encourage the agency to work with schools as they reopen.
During the DC Department of Transportation’s (DDOT’s) performance oversight hearing last month, we shared our appreciation for the agency’s Kids Ride Free Program. This program, established by Mayor Bowser, allows students to ride for free on Metrobus, Metrorail, and the DC Circulator while traveling within the District. The program is critical for the more than 33,500 students who commute to and from their schools. And although its numbers are reduced as a result of remote learning during the pandemic, the program and the access to transportation it provides are still critical for the thousands of students going to school buildings for in-person learning and support.
For learning to exist, students must feel safe, cared for, and attended to. This is as true in school buildings as it is in students’ journeys to and from school. We know from school leaders that they and the families they serve are concerned about their health and safety on public transit during the pandemic.
Public transportation for students, particularly in the District of Columbia, is at its core an equity issue, and we know that many of the students who rely on public transportation to get to and from school buildings are the same ones that are at greatest risk of transmission. And these are often the same students whose communities have experienced disproportionate health outcomes from the virus and who are less likely to receive the vaccine.
We have two specific recommendations for the agency to address public transit issues during the public health emergency.
First, we encourage WMATA to engage with school leaders as they plan to expand in-person learning. To respond to their concerns and the desire to get more students back in school buildings, school leaders must think even more strategically and innovate even more in almost every area, including school transportation. They want to do everything they can to ensure that students and families feel as safe as possible using public transit to and from school buildings. WMATA can be a helpful planning partner in this work.
In addition, we encourage WMATA to take public steps to demonstrate that it can handle this increased student ridership safely. To that end, we would like to coordinate with WMATA and the Kids Ride Free Program on a COVID-19 safety campaign to encourage mask-wearing, social distancing, and other coronavirus mitigation strategies on public transportation, particularly amongst students.
We hope this Committee will work with our sector and WMATA to answer these questions. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.