Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Government Operations and Facilities By Shannon T. Hodge

Feb 23, 2021

Good afternoon, Chairperson White and members of the Council. 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 Office of ​the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) and its Internet for All program.

To start, I want to thank Lindsey Parker, Chief Technology Officer at OCTO, for reaching out to my team ahead of today’s hearing to discuss how we can best work together in the future. I hope that moving forward, the OCTO team, my team, and charter school leaders can convene and collaborate regularly to ensure that we’re doing all we can to meet students’ technology needs.

In many ways, our understanding of education and schooling turned on its head in March of 2020, when seemingly overnight school shifted from something that happened in brick and mortar buildings to something that happens over screens, wires, and waves. Our schools are thankful to the Mayor for OCTO’s ​Internet for All ​program, which is designed to provide internet access to students of families whose households receive SNAP or TANF benefits.

Since last summer, the DC Charter School Alliance has held regular virtual convenings for all 66 organizations that serve the more than 40,000 students who attend charter schools in DC. During these gatherings, we routinely survey school leaders on issues most important to their communities, and we use those data to inform our work as advocates. Just last month, we asked school leaders about how they were meeting students’ technology needs and what technology issues their students were still experiencing ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

The results demonstrated how the unique nature of charter schools allows them to be nimble and flexible. For example, 93% of survey respondents are providing hotspots for students, 8% are paying families’ internet bills directly, and 5% are paying indirectly. What those results show is that school leaders took matters into their own hands to meet the needs of their families where and how they could.

Yet, schools alone cannot meet all of students’ technology needs, and almost all respondents reported some issue with internet access. Eight percent of respondents were still waiting for the City to assist with their families’ internet needs. Additionally:

  • 69% of survey respondents said their students are experiencing issues with internet speed and connection;
  • 52% said wifi continues to be weak in the communities their students reside in and that their caretakers are unable to assist them with technical issues;
  • 41% said their students haven’t been able to take advantage of OCTO’s Internet for All program; and
  • 23% said their students are still without internet access.

As the 2020–2021 school year comes to a close, we need to make certain that students and families have adequate technological support to successfully enter into summer learning and the 2021–2022 school year. To ensure this, we have we have several specific recommendations for OCTO:

  • Provide internet access for adult students and students who are undocumented;
  • Better communicate with families, especially about how they contact the program directly;
  • Provide better internet quality, speed, and connectivity, because households with multiple children and working parents suffer most from poor internet quality;
  • Provide help desk support in other languages;
  • Develop a citywide technical support system;
  • Clarify whether OCTO or the City will reimburse schools for hotspots and data connectivity they’ve purchased directly; and
  • Articulate a plan for how OCTO will continue to support internet access next school year. We look forward to collaborating with the OCTO team to ensure that students have the internet access they need for learning.

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