Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Hearing on Bill 24-423, Coronavirus Immunization of School Students and Early Childhood Workers Amendment Act of 2021

Oct 27, 2021

Good morning, 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’m once again grateful for the opportunity to share insights with you today about what’s happening in charter schools to help inform your decision-making about the legislation before you, which would require all eligible DC students, including public charter school students, to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Coordination Is Critical to Successfully Implement Student Vaccine Mandates

Our schools’ top priority remains providing safe spaces to learn and work during the pandemic. This is why charter school leaders strongly support a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for students eligible for vaccination. However, school leaders are tremendously concerned about the implementation of student vaccine requirements, and they believe that careful coordination is necessary before any mandate is imposed.

For example, it’s inevitable that a vaccine mandate will have a disproportionate effect on students of color, who are most likely to be vaccine hesitant or resistant. From the very beginning of this pandemic, COVID-19 has hit communities of color the hardest. Disparities in vaccination rates among Black residents continue to persist thanks to unequal healthcare access, historic mistrust of the medical establishment, and vaccine misinformation. Knowing what we know, and knowing how intractable vaccine hesitancy and resistance are, it seems untenable to plan to exclude our most vulnerable students from school, especially after almost 18 months of learning loss from the pandemic.

Effectively mitigating a potential citywide issue requires a citywide strategy—one that begins with solving the problems of vaccine hesitancy and resistance. Charter school leaders are more than willing to work with Mayor Bowser, DC Public Schools, DC Health, and other city agencies on such a strategy.

Clarity Is Critical to Successfully Implement Student Vaccine Mandates

Before implementation of a student vaccine mandate, city officials and school leaders need to be able to answer the many questions that will arise, including the following: 

  • How will the city make sure that all students, including our most vulnerable students, have easy, equitable access to the vaccines? 
  • How will the city create new incentives to encourage vaccine hesitant and vaccine resistant students to get vaccinated? 
  • Will schools be required to keep unvaccinated students enrolled? 
  • Who is responsible for enforcement, and how will they monitor and enforce compliance? 
  • Who is responsible for providing a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities who are unvaccinated? 
  • Which truancy guidelines will apply to unvaccinated students? 

These are just a few examples of concerns that the city must clearly, carefully, and swiftly deliberate and address before imposing a citywide student vaccine mandate. The failure to do so will result in schools, parents, and students being left confused and frustrated.

Schools Cannot Bear the Burden of Enforcing Student Vaccine Mandates

While school leaders strongly support a vaccine mandate, the city cannot simply drop enforcement responsibility into the laps of already overextended school leaders. Any number of city government agencies — DC Health, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) — can be responsible for managing enforcement of mandates. Our schools simply do not have the bandwidth to manage another major mid-year policy shift, particularly one that requires coordination amongst many agencies and organizations.

If this mandate does pass on an obligation to schools to monitor student compliance, schools will experience a significant fiscal impact. They will need to revise their data systems and files to be able to track compliance, train staff on new procedures, engage in substantial parent education activities and communication campaigns, dedicate staff time to track compliance and documentation, and conduct parent follow-ups and referrals to vaccine administration sites—just to name a few of the new obligations that would flow from this legislation. All of this comes at a cost.

And this fiscal impact would come on top of unexpected new costs schools have absorbed this year. Our schools didn’t oppose the recent emergency legislation expanding the number of students eligible for virtual learning and increasing asymptomatic coronavirus testing requirements, despite the obvious costs associated with both. We did that because we are good partners and good members of the community — it was the right thing to do. But our schools cannot continue to absorb unfunded costs related to policies that are passed after budgets have already been set.

That’s especially true given that our schools have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure our buildings are safe and can continue to support in-person learning. They’ve done this despite not having received a penny of the $10 million in facilities reopening grants to charter schools that Mayor Bowser announced exactly five months ago today in a press release. Because this Council approved a budget that did not include increases in the facilities funding allotment, our schools — which serve nearly half of public school students in our city — have had to front all the money to make sure their schools are safe in the middle of a pandemic. And they’ve done this without the certainty that they will be reimbursed at the preliminary allocations that OSSE has announced.

Moving Forward

Our school leaders want to do what’s best for the health and safety of students and staff. I’m grateful every day for their tireless efforts to create and sustain safe, affirming, world-class learning environments for their students under very difficult circumstances. But they need better collaboration and coordination with city leaders to truly help students recover from and thrive after the pandemic.

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