Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Special Committee on COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery & Committee of the Whole at the Public Hearing on The District’s Public Education System After the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 26, 2021

Good morning, Councilmember Gray, Councilmember Allen, 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. Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the challenges our city’s public education system faces as we continue our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Background

As they plan for the next year and beyond, charter school leaders are intently focused on their plans to assess the academic and social-emotional needs of their students and to ensure programming meets those needs. Schools will detail their intentions in Continuous Education Plans due to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education by June 30.

But as we think about what pandemic recovery looks like for the District of Columbia’s students, particularly in the public charter schools that serve nearly 44,000 students and are supported by approximately 10,000 teachers, staff, and leaders, we’ve identified five areas the District should focus on. First, we must close the digital divide that the pandemic exposed. Second, we must protect and rebuild the critical early childhood education and adult learning infrastructure that the city has built over the last decade. Third, we must leave space for schools to innovate and incorporate what we’ve learned over the last 14 months, rather than forcing them to return to pre-pandemic business as usual. Fourth, we must address serious concerns related to teacher, staff, and leader wellness and burnout, so that we retain rather than lose the hardworking people who make our schools thrive. And finally, we must make bold and targeted investments in our schools and students.

Address the Digital Divide

We must confront a deep inequity in our public education system that lurked beneath the surface before the pandemic but that the last year brought to the forefront: the digital divide. When the pandemic hit, well-resourced students already had access to computers and quality internet access. For them, the transition to distance learning, while not necessarily seamless, was manageable.

However, many students from under-resourced families lacked computers, quality internet access, and the ability to transition smoothly to distance learning. As the D.C. Policy Center shared in its most recent State of D.C. Schools report, 37 percent of students in Wards 7 and 8 lacked access to broadband internet prior to the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, this divide was unacceptable. But when the primary method of learning shifted from the classroom to the airwaves, the divide became a crisis. Thanks to D.C.’s Internet for All program, many families in our communities obtained free or low-cost internet access from local service providers. And many schools purchased internet access for students in need.

But these stopgap measures haven’t solved the digital divide. Not every student has been able to take advantage of the city’s Internet for All program. Internet speeds and weak connections in under-resourced communities continue to be a problem. And even though we’re more than a year into this public health crisis, many students are still completely without reliable internet access.

We need the city to articulate a plan for how it will continue to support internet access next school year and beyond. We look forward to collaborating with the city to ensure that students have the internet access they need for learning. And we applaud your leadership in introducing the Internet Equity Amendment Act to create a digital equity division to begin addressing the digital divide, and we urge its passage.

Protect and Rebuild Infrastructure

We must focus now and over the next 3 to 5 years on protecting and rebuilding the early childhood education and adult learning infrastructure that the city has invested so heavily in. We’re particularly grateful for Councilmember Gray’s leadership on early childhood education—and we want to ensure that we protect all the gains we’ve made thanks to your efforts over the years.

What we’re hearing from schools right now is that enrollment is down across sectors, in both  pre-K and adult charter schools. We need to work together as a community to encourage families to take advantage of pre-K enrollment opportunities that are essential to narrowing opportunity gaps. We also need to make sure that we have adequate funding and academic programs for adult learners through adult charter schools, which provide training and vital job connections that can lift adult students and their families out of poverty. And for both early childhood education and adult learning, we need to stabilize funding during fluctuating periods of enrollment so we don’t lose the critical programming and skilled staff our schools have invested in developing over the last decade.

Leave Space for Innovation

We support the goal of returning to 100% in-person learning. At the same time, we and leaders want to make sure that schools are prepared to meet their communities’ needs on the first day of school. Let me be clear: school leaders are planning for a full return to in-person learning for next school year. They are excited to welcome their students back, and they are planning diligently to accelerate learning and meet students’ social-emotional needs in school buildings. Yet they are worried that many students and families will not be ready to return to school buildings, even with all their efforts to encourage enrollment, promote vaccination, and demonstrate how safe in-person learning is.

While many of us are returning to lives that seem a bit more like February 2020, for many people, the pandemic is not yet over. Although case numbers are down from their pandemic highs, new cases are announced every day. And in D.C., the racial gap in cases is widening, as Black people now make up more than 80% of new cases. And we know from surveys and firsthand experiences that the communities that have experienced the highest numbers of infections, the greatest losses, and the most trauma during the pandemic are the ones that are most reluctant to return to school buildings.

Our goal in recovery should not be a return to pre-pandemic ways of educating our students. We’ve learned a lot from school leaders, teachers, and staff who have found creative and innovative ways to continue providing support and a high-quality education for their students. And leaders need space to continue to apply those lessons.

We’ve heard from many schools that some students have been more successful in a virtual learning environment than they were in a physical classroom. That’s why schools need the flexibility to pursue innovative, high-quality learning models that are right for their students. Schools—especially adult charter schools and schools serving higher grade levels—are finding that being flexible on when lessons are completed has been helpful for some students. We need policymakers to understand this and not prevent these kinds of student-centered innovations.

Schools have also learned a great deal about how to improve family engagement. We’ve heard from school leaders that they’ve learned better and more effective strategies for reaching and building trusting relationships with families, including better approaches to parent-teacher conferences as well as improved and more frequent communication on student progress and emotional well-being.

And, many schools have innovated to create more opportunities for teachers and students to engage outside of class time, thanks to Zoom and other technologies with chat functions. Schools have reported that students feel more comfortable seeking out teachers with questions, and it’s critical that this type of communication continues as more and more students return to in-person schooling.

Retain Teachers, Staff, and Leaders

We must acknowledge that many of our teachers, staff, and leaders are exhausted and burned out. The effects of the pandemic on the wellness of the hardworking people who educate and support our students is deeply concerning. Unfortunately, even though officials and policymakers mean well, the source of burnout often comes from overburdening school personnel with external planning and reporting requirements that take their focus away from their students. Rather than losing critical personnel due to burdensome new requirements, we need to focus our energies on retaining them.

School leaders are taking the wellness of their teachers and staff seriously. Many schools have implemented enhanced staff wellness programs to promote both physical and mental wellness. Some schools have started “Wellness Wednesdays” and similar initiatives, such as yoga, mindfulness, mental health supports, and unscheduled time, alongside other efforts to ensure personnel are well supported for success. One way the city can help is by ensuring that at least one full-time school nurse or medical professional is in every school building to help address the mental health needs of students, teachers, and staff.

And, the city should also consider opportunities to provide incentives for teachers and other school-based staff to continue doing this work in the District. That could include things like enlarging incentives for home buying, targeted tax credits, or providing opportunities to pursue a postsecondary degree. Long-term incentives like these will help demonstrate our commitment to ensuring the needs of our teachers and staff are met, and encourage them to continue their incredibly important work educating our students.

Invest in Schools and Students

As we consider the challenges facing our public education system and broader community due to the pandemic, we need bold and targeted investments in our schools and students. That means the city needs to:

  • Fully fund the facilities allotment so that our teachers, staff, and students have what they need to feel safe in well-maintained buildings;
  • Increase the UPSFF foundation formula by 4 percent;
  • Fully fund the at-risk and English Language Learner weights to the levels recommended by the 2013 adequacy study to ensure schools have the resources they need to support their most vulnerable students; and
  • Provide an additional $6.4 million to fund the expansion of the DC Department of Behavioral Health’s school-based mental health program.

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