Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Health at the Performance Oversight Hearing on the DC Department of Health

Feb 23, 2022

Good morning, Chairman Gray and members of the Committee. My name is Rachel Johnston and I am the Director of Special Projects at the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that every student can choose high-quality public schools that prepare them for lifelong success.

I want to start by showing our gratitude for the new State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant. We’re very happy to report that recently, under her leadership, we’ve started to see stronger collaboration and coordination between OSSE and DC Health, which is very helpful for our schools when they have questions on health guidance.

As always, charter schools are committed to providing safe and nurturing learning environments for the nearly half of DC public school students they serve as well as the approximate 10,000 teachers, staff, and leaders who support them. However, the pandemic brought a number of uncertainties that are difficult to plan for. While I’m confident school leaders will be able to navigate them, they need support from DC Health and the city as we move forward.

School Nurse Program

First, to make the school nursing program more effective, schools need greater clarity around what they can ask nurses to do.

Because Children’s school nurses typically do not assist with symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID-19 testing or caring for students who may be deemed ill at school, many schools contracted with supplemental nurses for COVID-19 support. While some schools used their own funding, many took advantage of the city’s COVID-19 Positive Case Response and Clinical Supports for Schools Grant to hire contact tracers and nurses, which has relieved a lot of pressure. However, that funding will end on June 30 and many schools operate during the summer. We know COVID-19 will still be a concern so the city should extend this grant and expand the scope to include COVID-19 logistical support.

Additionally, to ensure schools are able to provide basic nursing services, we need an equitable distribution of nurses that considers the number of students they will be serving. Today, the disparity in case loads at charter schools ranges from 253 students to 1,190 students for every one nurse because DC Health distributes nurses based on the number of school buildings.

And finally, we need DC Health to truly collaborate with schools to ensure every student receives annual hearing and vision screenings. These results are required for schools to make eligibility decisions for special education.

Operationalizing No Shots No Schools

Schools need accurate, user-friendly data from DC Health on immunization compliance. This is especially important now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been added to No Shots No School. We understand DC Health is preparing to roll out an updated version of The District of Columbia Immunization Information System (DOCIIS), but as of today, that system has not been launched. Our schools urgently need this data system to come online to fully operationalize No Shots No School.

Test-to-Stay Program

Third, a functioning COVID-19 test-to-stay program is critical to keep students and teachers in classrooms. Yet, without intervention, the reality is that most charter schools are months away, at best, from completing DC Health’s CLIA Certificate of Waiver process needed to operate a school-based test-to-stay program. While the DC Alliance is helping schools navigate this complex process, what schools really need is a blanket standing order allowing them to administer COVID-19 tests onsite, something DC Health can organize with a doctor or lab. At least half a dozen state health departments have already done this.

We also ask that the Council prioritize supporting more frequent COVID-19 testing in schools with additional funding when considering the supplemental budget.

Better Guidance Implementation

Fourth, some of DC Health’s published guidance is proving difficult to operationalize. I want to call attention to two examples in particular. First, to exit quarantine and return to school, DC Health guidance requires students who test at home to provide results both to their schools and online to DC Health. This is a lot to ask of families. Second, DC Health guidance created a requirement that only students who wear well-fitted masks at the time of exposure to COVID-19 can participate in test-to-stay. However, it’s not easy to pinpoint the exact moment of exposure, making this requirement difficult to comply with. We ask DC Health to collaborate with charter schools when drafting new guidance. Incorporating input in advance will make implementation smoother, so schools can focus more time on instruction, not interpreting guidance.

Moving Forward

At its core, it’s important we remember that only after their health needs are met can students focus on learning. While DC’s public charter schools are nimble, responsive, and innovative, they are not healthcare specialists. The pandemic has elevated schools’ need to have truly collaborative and supportive partnerships with DC Health and healthcare providers to ensure they have what they need to continue safely serving students. This ranges from onsite school-based clinics and nursing support, to implementable processes and guidance.

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