Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Health

Mar 19, 2021

Good morning, Chairman Gray 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 today to testify about the Department of Health (DC Health) and encourage the agency to work collaboratively with school leaders to safely bring more students back into school buildings.

The District of Columbia’s public charter schools are committed to providing safe and nurturing learning environments for the 44,000 students we serve as well as the approximately 10,000 teachers, staff, and leaders who support them. As school leaders and students start to look ahead to the next school year, what they need is clear, timely information on public health guidance from DC Health and city leaders.

We Need Better Coordination and Communication with DC Health

From the very early days of the pandemic, public charter school leaders have struggled on multiple fronts to appropriately coordinate and communicate with city agencies about programmatic changes that will affect their operations. Students, families, teachers, and school staff are disadvantaged when they have little opportunity to weigh in on strategies and decisions that affect their lives, and also when they only learn this critical information about changes from press conferences.

Said another way, all too often school leaders receive important information with limited detail at the same time as the broader public. School leaders are not given appropriate early insights into these announcements, preventing them from adjusting their plans and being responsive and attentive to the needs of their communities. A simple adjustment of better coordination and communication would enable school leaders to adjust their reopening plans and re-enforce new health guidance within their school communities.

We know firsthand that the District benefits from engaging and working together with charter school leaders. For the remainder of my time, I want to provide three pieces of evidence that speak to the need for and benefits of better communication and coordination with DC Health.

First, in November, charter school leaders laid out what schools needed from city officials that would enable schools to safely bring more students back to building for in-person learning. We asked the city to provide equitable access to health-related services, including providing at least one nurse or medical professional in every school building who could serve all students, teachers, and staff on site. We also asked for asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. But more importantly, we asked for DC Health to provide clear, updated orders and public health guidance to enable schools to provide quality in-person learning environments for more students during the pandemic. The city responded. DC Health updated public health guidance, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) issued a Frequently Asked Questions document for school leaders, and public charter schools now have access to the city’s asymptomatic testing program. As a result, we have more students in charter school buildings.

Another example of how better coordination and communication benefit the entire city is the vaccination of charter school personnel. In January, we partnered with DC Health, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), OSSE and the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), to ensure that the thousands of eligible charter school personnel had access to the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine. We partnered with these agencies because we know that vaccine access is crucial to fully reopening school buildings. That’s why we were heartened that city leaders and DC Health worked collaboratively with public charter school leaders to facilitate vaccine distribution to the District’s nearly 10,000 public charter school staff. We need even more collaboration to make sure all public charter school teachers and staff get vaccinated, allowing schools to continue scaling in-person learning plans and working together with their communities to find a safe path forward.

Finally, just last week, dozens of school leaders offered their recommendations for updated public health guidance, and we compiled their varied recommendations in the hopes that city officials would communicate and collaborate with school leaders about how best to safely bring more students back into school buildings. Among the recommendations were three updates that most charter school leaders believe are essential to enable in-person learning for substantially more students: 

  1. Increasing the maximum cohort size to at least 20, or, if possible, 30; 
  2. Allowing students to move between classes or cohorts to mix; and
  3. Providing clear, timely public health metrics and indicators to inform schools’ decision-making about in-person learning.

This type of flexibility is what many schools need to respond to their communities and to continue safely expanding in-person learning opportunities. We learned through a public announcement on Monday that DC Health would be updating its health guidance for schools, though as of this hearing, we are still awaiting the final updated guidance.

Moving Forward

DC has always been a place where innovation and excellence in public education has thrived. Charter schools are nimble, innovative, and responsive at their core and that has enabled them to adapt over the last year. But to ensure that schools have what they need for a safe return to school buildings and a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we simply need better collaboration and communication with DC Health and city leaders. We’re confident that working together and engaging with charter school leaders will benefit the City and the communities our schools serve.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.